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FAITH, SCIENCE AND UNDERSTANDING 




Faith^ 

Science and 
Understanding 


JOHN POLKINGHORNE 


Yak University Press New Haven and London 



Published 2000 in the United States by Yale University Press and 
in Great Britain by SPCK Publishing. 

Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. All rights reserved. 

This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illus- 
trations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 
and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the 
public press), without written permission from the publishers. 

Set in Janson type by Tseng Information Systems, Durham, North 
Carolina. 

Printed in the United States of America. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 
Polkinghorne, J. C., 1930- 

Faith, science and understanding / John Polkinghorne. 
p. cm. 

Includes bibliographical references and index. 
isbn 0-300-08372-6 (alk. paper) 

1. Religion and science. I. Title. 

BL241 .P563 2000 

26i- 5'5 — dc2i 00-026934 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. 

The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability 
of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the 
Council on Library Resources. 


10 987654321 



the Clergy and People 
Parish of the Good Shepherd , 
Cambridge 




fides quaerens intellectum 
faith seeking understanding 

— St Anselm 




Contents 


Preface xi 

Acknowledgements xvi 

I ISSUES 

one. Theology in the University 3 

two. Motivations for Belief 27 

three. The Role of Revelation 52 

four. Design in Biology? 66 

five. Second Thoughts 78 


1 Critical Realism 78; 2 Quantum Cosmology 
and the Anthropic Principle 85; 3 Panentheism 89; 

4 Dual Aspect Monism 95; 5 Chaos Theory 99 

II DIVINE AGENCY 
six. God in Relation to Nature: 

Kenotic Creation and Divine Action 105 

seven. Natural Science, Temporality and 

Divine Action 130 



Ill SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 
eight. Contemporaries 
i Wolfhart Pannenberg V Engagement with 
the Natural Sciences 156; 2 Thojnas Torrance's 
Engagement with the Natural Sciences 173; 

3 Paul Davies’ Engagement with Theology 186 
nine. Science and Theology in England 



Preface 


After I had written a trilogy of short books about science and 
theology, I permitted myself the liberty of writing a subse- 
quent volume, Reason and Reality, that enabled me to return 
to some of the issues then raised in somewhat greater depth. 
Since then I have written four books that each, in their own 
particular way, seek to contribute to the presently burgeon- 
ing field of science and theology studies : my Gifford Lectures, 
Science and Christian Belief (in the United States, The Faith of 
a Physicist)-, a survey of the writings of scientist- theologians, 
Scientists as Theologians; my Terry Lectures, Belief in God in an 
Age of Science; and an introductory textbook, Science and The- 
ology. I now wish to offer a second ‘further thoughts’ volume, 
looking again at some of the issues raised in these four books. 

The first section of the book is concerned with a number 
of key issues that arise in the interaction between science and 
theology. Its underlying basis is the conviction that both disci- 
plines have things of value to say to each other because both, 
in their differing domains of experience, are concerned with 


XI 



PREFACE 


the search for truth attained by the formation and evaluation 
of motivated beliefs. 

The invitation to give the Firth Lectures at the Univer- 
sity of Nottingham gave me the opportunity to reflect on the 
place of theology in the university. What I said then is the 
basis for the first two chapters of this book. In chapter i, I de- 
fend the concepts of the value of knowledge for knowledge’s 
sake and of the essential unity of knowledge. I believe these 
to be the foundations on which the life of a university is built. 
If theology does not make its own distinctive contribution to 
this intellectual endeavour, the enterprise of higher education 
is incomplete. In the course of an open search for understand- 
ing, the personal and subjective elements of human experience 
must be accorded equal weight with the impersonal and ob- 
jective aspects which constitute science’s self-limited domain 
of enquiry. In chapter 2, I draw upon science’s success in its 
own task, to give encouragement both to the due recognition 
of an inescapable degree of precariousness present in all forms 
of human search for knowledge, and also to resist succumbing 
to epistemological despair. Theology’s appeal to revelation is 
seen as being recourse to illuminating experience, analogous 
to science’s recourse to observation and experiment, and not 
an appeal to some ineffable and unquestionable authority. 

In chapter 3, I further look at the role of revelation in 
religion, so often felt by enquiring scientists to constitute a 
stumbling block for them. The particular and unique has a 
necessary significance in the realm of the personal and trans- 
personal. Scripture is the record of remarkable individual en- 
counters with the divine, but it is neither uniform in its char- 
acter nor immune from critical evaluation. It is to be read 
as evidence for the way in which God has made the divine 



PREFACE 


nature known, and not as a textbook in which God has pro- 
vided ready-made answers for our unquestioning acceptance. 

Among contemporary scientists, biologists tend to be 
much more sceptical of religion, and indeed often hostile to 
it, than are many physicists. Therefore, it was an unexpected 
development in the 1990s to see some revival of the discussion 
of teleological arguments among certain biologists. Chapter 4 
gives a concise survey of this activity and an assessment of its 
possible relevance to theology. Questions of significant inter- 
est have certainly been raised, but a cautious view is taken of 
what metaphysical conclusions might flow from this. 

In chapter 5, five short essays are gathered together that 
reconsider topics that have received considerable recent atten- 
tion in the interaction between science and theology. First, 
critical realism is defended in the face of the apparent disconti- 
nuity involved in moving from Newton’s inverse square law of 
gravitation to Einstein’s geometry of curved space. The con- 
clusion is that it is only at the level of the fundamental mathe- 
matical structures, that underlie physically picturable models, 
that the degree of continuity of account that realism demands 
is to be discerned. This recognition reinforces the perception 
of mathematics as being the fundamental language of physi- 
cal science. Second, attempts to use quantum cosmology as 
a device for generating a many-worlds interpretation of an- 
thropic coincidences are shown to be no more than some- 
what desperate metaphysical strategies. Third, panentheism 
is looked at again in the light of a vigorous defence of that 
concept mounted recently by Philip Clayton. I remain uncon- 
vinced, presenting some critiques of Clayton’s arguments. In 
my opinion it remains unclear why one should not be content 
simply to achieve a balance between divine transcendence and 



PREFACE 


divine immanence without recourse to doubtful panentheistic 
language. Fourth, a form of dual-aspect monism is reconsid- 
ered in which the material and the mental are complementary 
to each other. It is supposed that the truths of mathematics are 
entities existing at the extreme mental pole (just as stones exist 
at the extreme material pole). This leads to the conclusion 
that the duality involved is not only mental/material but also 
being/becoming and everlasting/temporal. Finally, I try yet 
again to correct certain persistent misunderstandings about 
my proposals for an ontologically realistic interpretation of 
chaos theory. 

Part 2 of the book is concerned with what was the domi- 
nant issue in the science and theology debate in the 1990s: 
How we may conceive of divine agency in a way that respects 
the integrity of the scientific account of the process of the 
physical world and which also does justice to the religious 
intuition and experience of God’s providential interaction 
within history? 

Chapter 6 provides an overview of the issues. There are 
two novel features in the discussion here presented. One is 
the employment of a typology of attitudes to nature, first pre- 
sented by the historian of ideas R. G.Collingwood. The other 
is a putting into question the traditional theological assump- 
tion that God should never be considered as acting as a cause 
among causes. I suggest that divine self-limitation, implied in 
the act of allowing the being of the creaturely other, can be 
held to extend to the divine condescension involved in provi- 
dential action functioning as a cause among the causes of the 
world. A key theological concept in this discussion is the idea 
that the act of creation was an act of divine kenosis, a volun- 


XIV 



PREFACE 


tary limitation accepted by God as the necessary consequence 
of the divine love allowing the creation truly to be itself. 

In chapter 7, I discuss the nature of time as a means of 
exploring how one might propose different chains of alogical 
linkings together of scientific, metaphysical and theological 
ideas, in certain clusters of natural association. This chapter 
makes the greatest technical demands upon the reader, though 
I have reduced these demands to the minimum that is com- 
patible with a careful treatment of the issues. Because sci- 
ence does not determine metascience, though it certainly con- 
strains it, several different schemes are explored and evaluated 
in the chapter. 

Part 3 concentrates on the contributions that a variety of 
significant thinkers have made to the interaction between sci- 
ence and theology. 

In Scientists as Theologians I discussed the work of three 
contemporary scientist-theologians. In chapter 8 , 1 extend this 
survey by considering the work of two theologians, Wolfhart 
Pannenberg and Thomas Torrance, who have taken a serious 
interest in scientific matters, and the work of a scientist, Paul 
Davies, who, though standing outside any religious tradition, 
has nevertheless shown considerable interest in the possibili- 
ties of theistic explanation. 

Discussing the relationship between science and theol- 
ogy has been a preoccupation of the English. My final chap- 
ter reviews this long history, stretching over several centuries, 
finding it to be anchored in a national tendency to move from 
experience to understanding, of a kind that I have labelled 
‘bottom-up thinking’. 


XV 



Acknowledgements 


Chapters i and 2 are based on my Firth Lectures given at 
Nottingham University in 1997, and chapter 6 on my Wither- 
spoon Lecture given at the Center of Theological Inquiry at 
Princeton in 1998, which also appeared in Reflections (Center 
of Theological Inquiry, 1999). Chapter 9 is a modified ver- 
sion of a lecture I gave at a Conference in Heidelberg in 1998, 
organised by Professor Michael Welker. In each case I am 
grateful for a kind invitation and generous hospitality. Chap- 
ter 7 is based on a paper published in Theology Today (55, 329- 
343, 1998) and the material of 8.1 is a considerably expanded 
version of a paper published in Zygon (34, 151-158, 1999). I am 
grateful to the respective Editors for their permission to reuse 
this material. 

I am also grateful to the staff of Yale University Press for 
assistance in preparing the manuscript for press, and to my 
wife, Ruth, for help in correcting the proofs. 


XVI 



Part I 


ISSUES 




CHAPTER ONE 


Theology in the University 


ver since their origins in the late 
Middle Ages, universities have been 
sources of trained personnel apt for 
the service of the community, whether 
by providing clerks for the Royal 
Court or canon lawyers for the service 
of the Church. Advances in scientific 
technology, which have done so much to define the context 
of our life today, have only broadened and intensified the im- 
portance of this role. I believe that the universities can claim 
significant success in meeting this need. It would, however, be 
a bad error to mistake a valuable byproduct for the principal 
object of activity. The essential purpose of a regime of physi- 
cal exercise and good nutrition is the maintenance of health. 
If it also produces some excellent football players, that is to 
be welcomed, but that result is a collateral good rather than 
the main objective. The essential purpose of a university is the 
discovery and propagation of knowledge. Many other goods 
will derive from the fulfilment of that main objective, but their 



3 


ISSUES 


continuance depends, in the long run, upon not losing sight 
of the central aim. I state very clearly my belief in the value 
of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, together with my belief in 
the essential unity of all knowledge. Universities are the insti- 
tutionalised expressions of these beliefs. 

I became very aware of these issues in the late 1970s when 
I was briefly Chairman of the Nuclear Physics Board of what 
was then called the Science Research Council (SRC). It was 
my job to ask the British taxpayer, through SRC, for the £40 
million or so necessary to finance our national contribution 
to the international field of research into the fundamental 
structure of matter. Then, as always, money was short and the 
arguments between the different sciences seeking their share 
of what was available, correspondingly intense. We particle 
physicists were studying the behaviour of matter in extreme 
regimes that were far removed from circumstances relevant 
to everyday technology. In fact, that was the source of much 
of the expense, since such unusual states of matter could be 
created only in accelerators costing hundreds of millions of 
pounds to build and tens of millions of pounds per year to run. 
These machines were too expensive for any single European 
nation to construct and maintain on their own, but we be- 
longed to CERN, the international consortium that ran this 
activity in Europe. Developing precision engineering on kilo- 
metre scales, and control devices with nanosecond response 
times, certainly generated remarkable technical advances that 
would find application outside the particle physicists’ special- 
ised field of use. Many talented young people served their 
scientific apprenticeship within our community, and most of 
them subsequently went on to use the skills they had acquired 


4 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


in a variety of totally different contexts. In terms of spin-off, 
there was much that could be said for particle physics. But 
when the chips were finally down, when the last round of argu- 
ment was in progress about whether it was to be £40 million 
or only 35, there was just one central honest argument to be 
used in our cause. It was that to understand the fundamental 
structure of the matter of the universe, to unravel the mys- 
teries of quarks and gluons, was in itself a worthwhile thing 
to do, a high human achievement that did not need to find 
its justification outside itself. It was a case of knowledge for 
knowledge’s sake. 

Arguing in such terms cut ice with my scientific col- 
leagues on SRC because the argument is fundamental to the 
whole practice of natural science, whether it be physical, bio- 
logical or psychological enquiry. The prime motivation of sci- 
ence lies in the desire to understand the physical world. Con- 
trary to the priorities stated by Karl Marx, scientists give first 
place to science’s power to understand the world, even over 
technology’s power to change it. 

Arguing in such terms would have cut ice with theolo- 
gians also, had they been sitting round the table at SRC . They 
too are concerned with the search for understanding— though 
of a more profound Mystery than that of quarks and gluons. 
Theology has a natural role in an age of science just because 
it shares with modern science this quest for intelligibility. A 
theological faculty is a necessary presence in a true university 
because the search for knowledge is incomplete if it does not 
include in its aim gaining knowledge of the Creator as well 
as gaining knowledge of creatures. The unity of knowledge is 
fractured if theology is excluded. Before I attempt to justify 


5 



ISSUES 


these large claims, it will be helpful to look more closely at 
the scientific sector of this universal quest for truthful under- 
standing. 

The first thing we can learn is the distinction between 
understanding, on the one hand, and the lesser attainment of 
explanation, on the other. Quantum theory makes the point 
most clearly for us. In its modern form it was discovered in 
the mid 1920s. Since then its techniques have been used daily 
in many branches of physical science with impressive success. 
It explains the nature of chemical reactions, the properties of 
materials, the way the Sun shines. We know how to do the 
sums and they always seem to come out right. Invented to 
deal with atoms, quantum theory now makes successful pre- 
dictions about the behaviour of quarks, which are at least a 
hundred million times smaller than atoms. At the level of ex- 
planation and prediction, it is, perhaps, the most successful 
scientific theory ever. Yet we do not understand it. By that I 
mean that we are not in a position to feel intellectually content 
about it, to reckon that we see how it constitutes a totally sat- 
isfactory matrix of understanding, whose intrinsic nature and 
inner consistency we are able to grasp. The problem does not 
lie in the strangeness of quantum phenomena viewed from our 
everyday perspective, with their probabilistic character and 
the unpicturable behaviour in which an entity sometimes ap- 
pears to show wavelike properties and sometimes appears to 
show particlelike properties. All that may seem very odd to 
the commonsense mind, but we have come to see how quan- 
tum thinking has to deviate from everyday thinking if it is 
to accommodate these unexpected possibilities. Once we have 
grasped that, these counterintuitive properties yield them- 
selves up to being understood in terms of a modified quan- 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


turn form of intuition. One way of dealing with these seeming 
perplexities is to recognise that in the quantum world those 
little logical words ‘and’ and ‘or’ have different properties to 
those that they possess in everyday discourse. It turns out that 
quantum mechanically, you can mix together possibilities, like 
‘being here’ and ‘being there’, that we normally think of as 
being mutually exclusive of each other. The quantum me- 
chanically learned follow their master, Paul Dirac, in calling 
this the ‘superposition principle ’. 1 

All that may sound pretty weird, but if you trust what 
I have said, you can draw from it a useful moral about how 
to pursue the quest for understanding: ‘Do not make com- 
mon sense the measure of everything but be prepared to rec- 
ognise aspects of reality in those modes that are intrinsic to 
their natures, however strange these modes may at first sight 
seem to be’. There is not one single, simple way in which we 
can know everything; there is no universal epistemology. We 
know the everyday world in one way, in its Newtonian clarity; 
we know the quantum world in another way, in its Heisenber- 
gian uncertainty. Our knowledge of entities must be allowed 
to conform to the way in which they actually can be known. If 
we are to meet reality at all, we must meet it on its own terms. 
If that is a lesson applying to our knowledge of the quantum 
world, it would not be altogether surprising if it were a prin- 
ciple that also applied to theology’s quest for knowledge of the 
mystery of God. 

Once we have grasped the principle of quantum super- 
position, it turns out, we are also in a position to understand 


i. See, for example, J. C. Polkinghorne, The Quantum World (Penguin, 

1990). 


7 



ISSUES 


the strange duality of wave and particle. Dirac solved this 
problem through the discovery of quantum field theory A 
field is a spread out entity, and so has wave properties, but 
stirring in quantum theory also produces countable packets of 
energy (quanta, in fact!), so that there are particle properties 
as well. The wavelike states are superpositions of states with 
different numbers of particles, an option impossible in a New- 
tonian world (where you simply count however many particles 
you have, and that’s that), but perfectly natural in the quan- 
tum world. 

However, there are other aspects of quantum mechanics 
that continue to resist our understanding more than seventy 
years after the theory’s original discovery. The most perplex- 
ing of these is called ‘the measurement problem’. The theory 
predicts probabilities for various possible outcomes only when 
a measurement is made on a quantum system. Yet each time 
such a measurement is actually made, one of these possibili- 
ties emerges as the unequivocal result of the experimental ob- 
servation. How does this definite answer come about? One 
might attempt to rephrase the question, as Niels Bohr essen- 
tially did, by asking, How does the cloudy and fitful quantum 
world interlock with the clear and determinated world of labo- 
ratory equipment? Yet, putting the issue in that form is really 
begging the question, for there are not two worlds — quan- 
tum and laboratory— but one single physical world of which 
both are aspects. It is humiliating for a quantum physicist to 
have to admit that currently there is no satisfactory and agreed 
solution to the measurement problem — a particularly trouble- 
some confession given the fundamental role of measurement 
in the whole of physics. There is clearly more still to be under- 
stood. Another difficulty makes a similar point. 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


The two great fundamental discoveries of physical sci- 
ence in this century have been quantum theory and the general 
theory of relativity, which is Einstein’s profoundly beautiful 
and successful account of gravitation. Yet these two theories 
are imperfectly reconciled with each other. Every attempt so 
far to combine them has come to grief through the genera- 
tion of infinite inconsistencies. Most of the time, the problem 
can be ignored. General relativity is mostly applied to large 
systems, including the universe itself. Quantum theory is con- 
cerned with small-scale behaviour. The normal fields of appli- 
cation of the two theories are thus well separated from each 
other. However, not only must two such fundamental physi- 
cal theories eventually find a satisfactory merger for reasons 
of principle but also those cosmologists, like Stephen Hawk- 
ing, who are bold enough to talk about the extremely early 
universe must make some sort of shift at combining them. 
This is because the cosmos is then so small that it must be 
treated in a quantum mechanical way. The dazzling specula- 
tions with which the quantum cosmologists regale us in their 
popular books are intellectual arabesques performed on ex- 
tremely thin theoretical ice. Here is another area of physical 
science in which understanding is still lacking and where it is 
much needed. 

There is something further we can learn from science’s 
quest for understanding. It is the multi-levelled complexity of 
reality. The Holy Grail of contemporary particle physics is 
the so-called Grand Unified Theory (GUT) in which all the 
fundamental forces of nature might be unified in a description 
based on a single set of equations— equations so compact that 
they could be written on your T-shirt, and so beautiful that 
they would make an intellectually thrilling adornment. So far, 



ISSUES 


the quest, though actively pursued by many very able people, 
has not succeeded. I certainly wish it well and entertain hopes 
of its eventual success. However, I begin to dissent when some 
of my erstwhile colleagues go on in a grandiose way to rename 
the putative Grand Unified Theory, a ‘Theory of Everything’. 
For that to be true it would be necessary that we had attained a 
remarkable degree of universal understanding, and that crite- 
rion would not even be satisfied within physics itself. A GUT 
would be an immensely satisfying intellectual discovery but 
many, many physical phenomena of the highest interest— such 
as the turbulent motion of fluids, the superconducting proper- 
ties of metals and the thermodynamic properties of bulk mat- 
ter— would lie far outside its explanatory range. Conceptu- 
ally, as well as methodologically, physics cannot be reduced to 
particle physics. The imperialist claims of a Theory of Every- 
thing that asserts it has all within its grasp are no more realis- 
tic within physics than are the imperialistic claims of physics 
outside itself to have all of biology or psychology within its 
grasp. In turn, it is even less true that science encompasses all 
that is attainable or significant in the universal quest for under- 
standing. 

Galileo encouraged concentration on the primary quan- 
tities of matter and motion and a discounting of those sec- 
ondary qualities, such as colour, that are directly accessible 
through human perception. Explanations of change were ex- 
pressed in terms of the mechanical consequences of efficient 
causes and not in terms of the teleological action of final 
causes. There is no contesting the brilliant success of this 
narrow methodological strategy. Limiting the field of view 
brought into sharp focus certain kinds of phenomena which 
then yielded up their secrets to the investigating scientist. 


10 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


Newton’s laws of motion and the universal inverse square law 
of gravity provided a profound, though ultimately (as it turned 
out) only approximate, understanding of the nature of the 
solar system. Yet to believe that what had been omitted in 
order to make these gains had thereby been shown to be insig- 
nificant or peripheral would, from the point of view of an ade- 
quate understanding of reality, be an altogether unwarranted 
conclusion. It would amount to mistaking Mr Gradgrind’s 
definition of a horse— ‘quadruped, graminivorous, forty teeth, 
namely twenty-four grinders, four eye teeth and twelve inci- 
sive’ and so on— for a living animal. A. N. Whitehead would 
have called it ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. 

Let us come straight to the point. A central question is the 
significance to be assigned to personhood in forming a cred- 
ible and adequate account of reality. By a person I mean at 
least this: a self-conscious being, able to use the future tense 
in anticipation, hope and dread; able to perceive meaning and 
to assign value; able to respond to beauty and to the call of 
moral duty; able to love other persons, even to the point of 
self-sacrifice. To this I would also wish to add an explicit reli- 
gious dimension arising from the sense of a Reality beyond 
oneself, without whose gracious sustaining power life is in- 
complete, a Reality which is the ground of value and being 
and to whom the proper response is worship and obedience. 
I believe that we all know ourselves to be persons, even if we 
do not all wish to label as ‘religious’ certain aspects of our ex- 
perience of personhood. Then the question is, What do we 
make of this phenomenon of personhood? Is the appearance 
of persons here on planet Earth (and, for all we know, maybe 
on many other planets elsewhere in the universe) an event of 
prime significance for the understanding of what is going on, 


11 



ISSUES 


or is it just a curious byproduct of the physiology of certain 
kinds of animals, so that it is more complicated than, but no 
more meaningful than, the fact that some animals can digest 
grass and some cannot? Are we to believe that some animals 
are self-conscious and some are not, and that’s that? To take 
so dismissive and epiphenomenal a view of personhood seems 
to be tantamount to denying that there are any meaningful 
events in cosmic history at all. I cannot conceive of an occur- 
rence in the universe’s evolutionary development that is more 
astonishing and fraught with signs of fruitful significance than 
that it should have become aware of itself through the coming 
to be of humanity. Pascal spoke of us as ‘thinking reeds’, so 
insignificant on a cosmic scale but yet exceeding all the stars, 
since we know them and ourselves, and they know nothing. 
The mystery of consciousness must surely be a deep clue to 
the mystery of reality. A small but important aspect of this 
coming-to-be of cosmic awareness is that it permitted the de- 
velopment of science. It is strange, therefore, that some scien- 
tists seem to repudiate the insights of consciousness, prefer- 
ring instead to remain set in the misplaced concreteness of a 
world of atoms and the void. 

If the event of the evolution of persons is a profound 
pointer to the nature of reality, then science’s deliber- 
ately chosen self-restriction to impersonally describable phe- 
nomena may be methodologically effective but it is metaphysi- 
cally jejune. The search for understanding will have to be 
widened to a very considerable degree beyond the limits of 
purely scientific discourse. In doing so we shall have to learn to 
discard some intellectual restrictive practices that have been 
encouraged by that Enlightenment style of thinking of which 
we are all, to some extent, the heirs. The impersonal is not to 


12 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


be given precedence over the personal, or the quantitative over 
the qualitative, for they are simply differing aspects of our en- 
counter with a reality whose character is complex and multi- 
dimensional and whose different levels can be known only in 
ways that conform to their distinctive natures. Our study of 
the experience of doing science has prepared us for such a pos- 
sibility, with its recognition of the limited role of a reduction- 
ist particle physics within the totality of scientific understand- 
ing. Reality is too rich to be taken in at a single glance; it must 
be viewed from many perspectives. 

If it is true that the evolution of persons is of prime sig- 
nificance, then it is also true that the personally perceived 
qualities of reality must be expected to carry a correspond- 
ing prime significance. All personal perceptions are, to use a 
phrase of Thomas Nagel’s, ‘views from somewhere ’. 2 A per- 
son has a perspective on the world, with the opportunities for 
insight and the dangers of deception that every perspective 
confers. Of course, the same is true of the scientists’ percep- 
tions of what they choose to look at, for scientists are persons 
and I shall argue in the next chapter that this fact is fundamen- 
tal to the whole scientific enterprise and to its success. Yet the 
differing perspectives involved in the practice of science are 
usually rather easily superposed and reconciled— intersubjec- 
tively agreed, as we say— with the consequence that the result- 
ing construct has the air of a ‘view from nowhere’ ; it has the 
air of an ‘objective account’. 

Once we move on to consider more deeply personal en- 
counters with reality— the perception of beauty, for example 
—the situation no longer seems so straightforward. There are 


2. T. Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford University Press, 1986). 


13 



ISSUES 


differing degrees of individual sensitivity and there are cul- 
tural contexts that shape and constrain the reactions of the 
perceivers. The inexhaustible richness of great art evokes dif- 
ferent responses in different people, so that its perception is 
always a view from somewhere, a personal response. Yet, it 
seems that there is a sufficient degree of commonality within 
this range of idiosyncrasy to persuade us that the perception of 
beauty is an encounter with the way things are, that aesthetic 
experience offers us a window into reality. This window has 
its frame— we can only see certain wavelengths of light, hear 
certain sound frequencies— but it appears that, nevertheless, 
the opening is wide enough for access to something of great 
significance. In the search for understanding we must take 
account of the mysterious fact that the matter of the world, 
which in the impersonal terms of science has a behaviour that 
can be described with the crystal clarity of mathematics, is 
also the carrier of beauty, conveying a personal experience of 
symbolic power that evades all attempts to reduce it to a re- 
stricted and specifiable content, for it always overflows with 
surplus meaning. If you want to make a materialist reduction- 
ist uneasy, ask one what he or she makes of music, and insist 
on a response that corresponds to the actual way one lives and 
not to an ideologically glossed version of it. ‘Neurological re- 
sponse to vibrations in the air’, seems totally inadequate as an 
account of listening to a performance of the Mass in B Minor. 

There are other windows into the multi-levelled charac- 
ter of the world, in addition to science and aesthetics, that af- 
ford us insights that must be taken into account in an adequate 
mapping of the domain of reality. One of the most important 
is provided by our intuitions of morality. Nowhere is the pov- 


14 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


erty of a scientistic approach more evident than in the realm 
of ethical decision. 

It has been my privilege to serve on a number of gov- 
ernment-appointed committees charged with making recom- 
mendations about ethical codes of practice. Often I have been 
in the chair. The problems we were given to consider derived 
from advances in medicine and in genetics, areas in which I do 
not have expert knowledge. Of course, some of my colleagues 
on these committees were leaders in these fields and we always 
sought and received opinions and advice from relevant pro- 
fessional bodies and from individual experts. A great weight 
of scientific evidence was thus accumulated and the fact that 
I know from the inside how scientists tend to think was help- 
ful to me in evaluating it, even if the technical details were, 
inevitably, often beyond me. We needed all the understand- 
ing we could acquire of the scientific concepts and techniques 
involved, and of the practical possibilities and their likely con- 
sequences, in order to help us in our deliberations. Knowl- 
edge is a much better basis for recommendations than igno- 
rance. Yet purely scientific information could not settle the 
ethical issues. A different kind of insight and understanding 
was then required. In the search for wisdom in this area, I and 
my other non-technical colleagues on the committee could 
contribute on at least equal terms with the scientifically ex- 
pert members. I say ‘at least’, because the fact that we were not 
caught up in the immediate excitement of technical discovery 
may have given us a degree of helpful detachment, enabling us 
to recognise that not everything that can be done necessarily 
should be done, however scientifically remarkable it might be. 
In these ethical discussions we were no longer a committee 


15 



ISSUES 


of two kinds, experts and non-experts, but a committee of a 
single kind, a committee of persons, of moral beings in search 
of wise conclusions. 

The universe, composed as it is of quarks and gluons and 
electrons, is also the carrier of beauty and the arena of moral 
decision. With the dawning of self-consciousness, not only 
did there come into being ‘thinking reeds’ but there also came 
to be what we might call ‘joyful reeds’, which perceived and 
responded to beauty, and ‘moral reeds’, which acknowledged 
and obeyed ethical imperatives. Not only do I defend the sig- 
nificance of these different layers of our personal experience, 
but I also defend their autonomy. I deny that one is basic and 
the rest are derivable from it. It is the moral imperative that has 
been subject to the most determined reductionist onslaught in 
this respect. 

Anthropologists draw our attention to the many cultural 
variations of ethical rules. Of course, we should acknowledge 
this and take account of it. However, I cannot believe that 
a morally repellant act, such as the ethnic cleansing of de- 
spised minorities through acts of genocide, is properly viewed 
as being just one conventional choice for the way in which a 
society might decide to handle its problems. Such evil deeds 
are not cultural customs but they are absolutely wrong. Socio- 
biologists of a fairly extreme kind may assure us that what 
seem to be our moral intuitions are, in fact, genetically im- 
printed survival strategies. But evolutionary biologists are 
persons, too, and such a morally reductionist stance is almost 
impossible to maintain outside the study or the laboratory. 
In a way, Richard Dawkins is frank about this. He concludes 
The Selfish Gene by saying, ‘We are built as gene machines and 
cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn 


16 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the 
tyranny of the selfish replicators ’. 3 It seems a pity that Dawkins 
did not go on to ask not only where does this power come from 
but also what is the source of our urge to exercise it? If he 
had done so, he might well have concluded that ‘person’ was 
a better description for a human being than either ‘gene ma- 
chine’ or ‘meme machine’. 

I believe that there is a further level of experience in- 
volved in personhood, widely attested to and of great signifi- 
cance. It is connected with a recognition of human finitude 
and also with the intuition of an infinite Reality beyond the 
community of humankind. Death is perhaps one of the most 
direct ways in which to broach the issue. In one sense, there 
could be no more obvious illustration of limitation and tran- 
sience than the thought that death comes to all. ‘Golden lads 
and lasses must, as chimneysweepers, come to dust’. Mortality 
is universal, for death affects not only human beings and ani- 
mals but also, on immensely longer timescales, there will be 
the demise of the Sun and eventually that of the universe itself. 
Against these sombre facts, however, there is another fact to be 
set: that deep in the human heart there is an intuition of hope, 
a belief that the word of death, though certainly spoken, is not 
the last word. The burial customs of our Neanderthal ances- 
tors suggest that they expected some kind of destiny beyond 
death. That hope has continued widespread among human- 
kind, though articulated in a great variety of different ways. 
Some will see this as just a comforting illusion, a strategy di- 
verting attention from the stern fact of individual annihila- 
tion, but I do not accept this quick dismissal. For one thing, 


3. R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976), 215. 


17 



ISSUES 


notions of postmortem judgement do not altogether look like 
dreams of wish fulfilment. If indeed there is a ground for such 
hope, it can lie only outside the domain of reality directly ap- 
prehended by us in this world of transience. If there is a des- 
tiny for the finite beyond their finitude, it must surely lie in 
an infinite and continuing reality. To appropriate a phrase of 
Thomas Aquinas, that would be a reality ‘that all call God’. 

Many things could be said about this essentially religious 
level of experience. Of course, I would want to say them from 
a Christian perspective, informed by the insights of scripture 
and of the Church. The hope of a destiny beyond death would 
then be addressed in terms of the revealed faithfulness of the 
God of steadfast love and in the light of the resurrection of 
Jesus Christ. I discussed such issues in my Gifford Lectures 4 
and it is not my purpose to repeat that material here. On this 
occasion I am not attempting either to adjudicate or to per- 
suade in relation to specific theological understandings. In- 
stead, I simply argue that an adequate account of personal ex- 
perience, either in respect of individuals or in respect of the 
history of the world, cannot neglect the level of encounter 
with reality that broadly can be labelled ‘religious’. A some- 
what regional way of recognising this would be to note how 
much of the history of Western civilisation is unintelligible 
without an understanding of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, 
which permeates its art and culture and informs and shapes 
its ideas. A number of historians 5 have claimed that even the 

4. J. C. Polkinghorne, published as Science and Christian Belief and The Faith 
of a Physicist (London: SPCK; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). 

5. For example, S. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Scottish Aca- 
demic Press, 1978); C. A. Russell, Cross-Currents (IVP, 1986). 


18 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


rise of modern science in seventeenth-century Europe needs 
as part of its understanding a recognition of the influence of a 
theological doctrine of creation that affirmed the worth of that 
creation and emphasised the freely chosen character of the 
rationality with which the Creator had endowed it. This im- 
plied that there was indeed an order to be found in the physical 
world, but one that could be discovered only by looking and 
seeing what God had actually chosen to do. The Greek reli- 
ance on the power of reason was insufficient; it needed to be 
supplemented by the insights yielded by experimental obser- 
vation. 

One of the roles of theology in any age is the intellectual 
study of the religious dimension of personal experience. As 
with all academic disciplines, that study must be open and hon- 
est, prepared to conform to the discovered nature of reality 
and not shackled by prior prescription of what are the accept- 
able outcomes of the enquiry. Thus atheism is a possible theo- 
logical option, provided it arises from consideration of the 
evidence and not from a preemptive narrowness of prior view. 
There is a vast— and one must confess, perplexingly varied — 
body of human testimony down the ages that provides the raw 
material for this theological quest for understanding. If the 
religious aspect of personhood has the the significance that I 
believe is rightly attributed to it, then theological study is an 
indispensable component of the search for understanding, in a 
scientific age as much as in any other. I say again, a theological 
faculty is a necessary part of a university. 

To speak of theology in this way is to speak of it as a first- 
order discipline of enquiry, taking its place alongside science’s 
investigation of the physical world or moral philosophy’s in- 


19 



ISSUES 


vestigations of the nature of ethical decision. However, there 
is a further important role for theology to play, as a second- 
order reflection upon the whole of human knowledge. To seek 
to speak of God is to seek to speak of the One who is the 
ground of all that is. Such discourse, which we might call theo- 
logical metaphysics, must take account of the first-order in- 
sights of science, aesthetics, morality and also, of course, of 
theology itself in its first-order mode of particular investiga- 
tion into the understanding and significance of religious ex- 
perience. Theological metaphysics must respect the integrity 
of these primary disciplines. It is not its role to instruct them 
or to correct their conclusions, but to listen to what they have 
to say about their individual fields of study. The aim of theo- 
logical metaphysics is the integration of these partial perspec- 
tives, afforded by the first-order disciplines, into a single con- 
sistent and coherent account of reality. Thereby it seeks to 
provide a more profound and comprehensive understanding 
than could be acquired through any single primary mode on 
its own. 

Any scheme of this all-embracing kind has to be based 
on its chosen and defining explanatory principle, the justifi- 
cation for which must lie in the intelligibility of the result- 
ing account of reality. ‘Nothing comes of nothing’, and no 
metaphysics can function without its assumed, and thus un- 
explained, ground of explanation. Theological metaphysics is 
based on the belief that the will of a self-subsistent divine 
Agent is the true explanatory principle. If personhood and its 
qualities have the significance that has been suggested in the 
course of this chapter, a transpersonal God is surely the more 
fitting basis for the search for universal understanding than 


20 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


the impersonal power of matter that David Hume and other 
proponents of physical reductionism recommend to us. 

Theological metaphysics naturally accommodates the 
multi-layered character of reality that we have been consider- 
ing. Science has many things to tell us. It investigates a physical 
world whose wonderful order is transparent to our investiga- 
tion and whose fruitful processes are increasingly understood 
in terms of an intertwining of order and openness. That world 
is no piece of cosmic clockwork, for the twentieth century has 
seen the death of a merely mechanical view of the universe. 
Both quantum theory and chaos theory portray a more subtle, 
and I believe more supple, structure than that. In fundamental 
physics it is an actual technique to seek theories whose expres- 
sion is in terms of equations endowed with the unmistakable 
character of mathematical beauty. This is no mere exercise 
of aesthetic preference, because the experience of three cen- 
turies of doing theoretical physics indicates that it is precisely 
such economic and elegant theories that also exhibit a long- 
term fruitfulness that is convincing support for the belief that 
they are verisimilitudinous approximations to physical reality. 
The more we understand the history of the evolution of life, 
including the ten-billion-year prehistory in which the nec- 
essary chemical elements were being formed in the interior 
nuclear furnaces of first generation stars, the more we see that 
the potentiality for this happening had to be present from the 
start, built into the laws of nature which must take a very pre- 
cise, ‘finely tuned’ form if they are to sustain the delicate chain 
of process that links an expanding ball of energy (the universe 
post big bang) to the inhabited Earth of today. (I am refer- 
ring, of course, to the remarkable and unexpected collection 


21 



ISSUES 


of scientific insights that go under the name of the Anthropic 
Principle. 6 ) These are the kinds of things that have become 
known through scientific discovery. 

One might sum it up by saying that we live in a universe 
whose rational beauty makes it seem a world shot through with 
signs of mind and that from the beginning was pregnant with 
the possibility of carbon-based life. That is what science says 
but, of itself, it can say no more. Yet, if we are people en- 
dowed with a thirst for the kind of intellectual satisfaction that 
comes from gaining understanding through and through, it 
does not seem sufficient just to treat these remarkable prop- 
erties as happy accidents. They surely signal the need for a 
deeper form of intelligibility, going beyond the scientific. 

Theological metaphysics can offer us that more profound 
understanding. The wonderful order of the world is perceived 
by it as being a reflection of the Mind of the Creator, and the 
universe’s finely tuned aptness to the evolution of life is per- 
ceived as an expression of the Creator’s fruitful intent. In its 
turn, theological metaphysics can receive from science impor- 
tant help with one of its most difficult perplexities: the exis- 
tence of suffering, so widespread in a creation claimed by first- 
order theology to be good. Science is increasingly aware of the 
interconnectedness of the processes of the physical world. If 
some cells are to mutate and produce new forms of life, then 
other cells will possibly mutate also, but with malignancy the 
inevitable consequence in their case. The presence of cancer 
in creation is not due to the Creator’s callousness or incom- 
petence; it is the necessary cost of the evolving complexity 

6. J. D. Barrow and F. J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford 
University Press, 1986); J. Leslie Universes (Routledge, 1989). 


22 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


of life. The whole evolutionary process itself can be under- 
stood theologically as the Creator’s gift to creation of a due 
independence, so that it is allowed to explore and realise in its 
own way the fertility with which it has been endowed. This 
idea— that an evolutionary universe is a creation ‘allowed to 
make itself’— was part of the immediate Christian reaction 
to the publication of The Origin of Species, being expressed by 
such clergymen as Charles Kingsley and Frederick Temple. 
The notion that the Church was unanimous in an obscurantist 
rejection of Darwin in 1859 is as ignorant and incorrect as is 
also the belief that the scientific community was unanimous in 
welcoming him. The black-and-white accounts of those intel- 
lectually tempestuous times, so assiduously propagated in the 
media and in certain kinds of popular scientific writing, are 
just not true. 

I have argued that human appreciations of beauty con- 
stitute another level in our encounter with reality, as do our 
moral convictions and our religious experiences, including 
those intuitions of hope that arise despite the apparent fact 
of finitude and transience. In my opinion, no metaphysical 
scheme that dismisses these aspects of personhood as inciden- 
tal epiphenomena would be doing justice to the richness of 
reality. Equally, no metaphysical scheme would be adequate 
that did not seek to provide an integrated understanding of 
this multi-levelled encounter with the way things are. How 
does it come about that the same sequence of events can be 
a set of physical happenings, yet also the carriers of beauty, 
moments of moral challenge and decision, opportunities for 
awareness of the presence of God? For many worshippers, a 
church service will have all these characteristics and it could 
not properly be described without taking them all into ac- 


23 



ISSUES 


count. A theistic point of view makes this plenitude of experi- 
ence intelligible. Just as science’s insights of order and poten- 
tiality can be understood in the light of the divine Mind and 
Purpose, so our experiences of beauty can be understood as a 
sharing in the Creator’s joy in creation, our moral intuitions 
as intimations of God’s good and perfect will, our worshipful 
experiences as discernments of the divine presence, and our 
hopeful aspirations as grounded in God’s unchanging fidelity. 

My argument has been based on two assumptions, both 
of which are congenial to a scientist, so that they ought to find 
ready acceptance in a scientific age. One is that in forming our 
account of reality we should be open to all aspects of our en- 
counter with it. Tidy schemes, produced by selective oversim- 
plification and resulting in a neglect of part of the data, are 
not of any value. Within science itself, this principle meant 
that in the early years of the twentieth century the physicists 
had to acknowledge that they had detected both wavelike and 
particlelike properties in the behaviour of light, however dif- 
ficult it was to comprehend how these apparently conflicting 
characteristics could be reconciled with each other. It was an 
intellectually uncomfortable situation to be in, but ultimately 
the policy of experiential honesty led to the most profound 
and exciting discovery about the properties of matter made 
since the days of Newton. In the wider domain of metaphysi- 
cal enquiry, the same principle requires us to take seriously all 
aspects of our experience and to refrain from reaching easy 
but worthless conclusions by exalting the objective over the 
subjective, the repeatable over the unique, the impersonal over 
the personal. 

The second presumption is that we live in a cosmos, not 
a chaos, so that the world makes total sense. In other words, 


24 



THEOLOGY IN THE UNIVERSITY 


there is indeed a Theory of Everything, but a theory that is 
much grander and more comprehensive and intellectually sat- 
isfying than any Grand Unified Theory of particle physics 
could ever be. I have been suggesting that the name of that 
Theory is Theology, that the world makes total sense because 
it is a creation, the unified expression of the Mind and Will of 
its Creator. In short, I believe that the search for understand- 
ing through and through, if pursued with total openness and 
honesty, will in the end be found to be the search for God. 

That total intelligibility, as far as we are able to glimpse it, 
must yield not just a contemporary intelligibility, but it must 
embrace the whole sweep of cosmic history, both past and yet 
to come. The universe, as cosmologists know it today and ex- 
trapolate it into the future, will end in cosmic death, either 
through collapse or through decay. That recognition seemed 
to the distinguished theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg to 
confirm him in his atheism. At the end of his book The First 
Three Minutes , he wrote, ‘The more the universe seems com- 
prehensible, the more it also seems pointless ’. 7 Weinberg is 
moved by science’s discernment of the rational beauty of the 
universe but he sees ‘futility’ written all over its mortal fabric. 

There are two ways in which to seek to resolve this ten- 
sion between science’s account of a present universe of won- 
derful order and cosmology’s well-founded prognostications 
of an ending in eventual chaos. One is the stance of heroic 
atheism in which humanity defies the meaninglessness with 
which it is surrounded. Weinberg goes on to express this atti- 
tude when he says, ‘The effort to understand the universe is 
one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the 


7. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (A Deutsch, 1977), 149. 


25 



ISSUES 


level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy ’. 8 There 
is a stoic nobility in this stance which I respect, but I believe 
that it is mistaken. Instead, I choose the theistic resolution of 
the dilemma posed by cosmic futility, believing that, though 
the universe will die on a timescale of tens of billions of years, 
just as you and I will die on a timescale of tens of years, yet we 
and it have a true hope of a destiny beyond our deaths, assured 
to us by the faithfulness of the Creator. Theistic metaphysics 
offers an understanding that embraces the fact of mortality but 
sets it within the context of a divinely grounded expectation 
of fulfilment nevertheless. In Christian terms, this hope stems 
from the resurrection of Christ seen, as Paul understood it, as 
being the seed of a new creation which is the redemption of 
the old creation’s mortality. 

I started this chapter with two assertions fundamental 
to the life of a university— namely, the value of knowledge 
for knowledge’s sake and a belief in the ultimate unity of all 
knowledge. Just as the university system of Western Europe 
historically originated in the setting of the Church’s encour- 
agement of learning, so these two foundations of our contem- 
porary life of learning are undergirded by the insights of theo- 
logical metaphysics. Knowledge is of value because it is the 
exploration of a created reality, itself given value by the love 
of its Creator. Knowledge is one because God is one, so that 
our encounter is with a created unity. The search for under- 
standing is fundamental to our being human, an expression, 
whether acknowledged as such or not, of a profound obliga- 
tion to seek for and to honour the Creator. 


8. Ibid. 


26 



CHAPTER TWO 


Motivations for Belief 



believe that theology is of continu- 
ing significance in a scientific age and 
that its pursuit is an indispensable part 
of the activity of a complete univer- 
sity. These claims are based on the 
perception that theology fulfils two 
important roles in the spectrum of 
human enquiry into the way things are. One of these roles is its 
first-order investigation of religious phenomena, that is to say 
the encounter with the sacred that is widely attested through- 
out human history, though in a bewildering variety of ways. 
In this first role, theology seeks to evaluate the validity of the 
claims being made in this domain of human experience and to 
understand the significance that they might carry. The second 
role of theology is as an integrating discipline, setting the first- 
order accounts of science, aesthetics, morality, and of reli- 
gion itself, within a deeper and more comprehensive matrix of 
understanding. Theological metaphysics, as we may call this 
activity, aims to be a true ‘Theory of Everything’, based on 


27 



ISSUES 


the fundamental premise that the Mind and Will of a divine 
Agent lie behind the multi-levelled character of our encounter 
with reality. 

In the first chapter, my argument concentrated on advo- 
cating the adoption of a generous, comprehensive, and non- 
reductionist account of human experience. In particular, I 
made a plea to take our personhood seriously, not succumb- 
ing to the Enlightenment temptation to esteem the objective 
above the subjective. For example, we should not exalt sci- 
ence at the expense of art by thinking that the real nature of 
Giotto’s frescos is encapsulated by describing them as collec- 
tions of fragments of paint of determinate chemical compo- 
sition, set in a mixture of calcium and silicon oxides. 

A critic might object, however, that I had missed the point 
and that the essential difference between science and theology 
is not in their differing subject material but in their contrast- 
ing methods. The view propounded by this critic might be that 
science is coolly rational, basing its reliable conclusions on 
carefully sifted evidence and always willing to revise its opin- 
ions if further evidence becomes available that would make 
this necessary, while theology is doggedly assertive, appeal- 
ing not to evidence but to unquestionable authority, and so 
proving immovable in the stance that it takes, whatever the 
facts may have to say against it. In other words, in this critic’s 
view what we have to deal with would be the open mind of rea- 
son contrasted with the closed mind of revelation. Of course, 
if that were true, then theology’s claim to a place in the uni- 
versity curriculum, or its prospects of enduring in a scientific 
age, would indeed be seriously open to question. 

I am afraid that many of my scientific friends who have 
some sympathy with the idea of a spiritual dimension to life 


28 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

but who feel unable, all the same, to embrace religion, often 
suppose that something like this is indeed the case with the- 
ology. They are not out-and-out reductionists, for they are 
willing to give some attention to the sort of claims made in 
the first chapter. They are humane persons, valuing art and 
respecting morality, and they have a wistful hope that there 
might be a deeper sense to the universe and its history than 
science alone has been able to discern. Yet they fear that, were 
they to pursue this quest for deeper insight by making use 
of the resources of religion, they would soon find themselves 
committing intellectual suicide. They expect that they would 
be faced with a demand to sign on the dotted line to a series 
of incredible propositions, asserted solely on the basis of some 
ineffable and unchallengeable source of authority. If that were 
indeed the case, one could see why they were rightly wary. 

I say as clearly and as emphatically as possible that this is 
not the way theology operates and that the central religious 
question is the question of truth. Theologians, as much as 
scientists, are concerned with trying to discern and to under- 
stand the nature of reality. They seek to conform their think- 
ing to the way things are. I believe that the best way to try 
to fulfil that ambition is through the quest for motivated be- 
lief and not through submission to unquestionable authority. 
When I gave up professional work in theoretical physics and 
eventually became a serious amateur student of theology, I do 
not think that, in respect to this openness as to what is actually 
the case, my intellectual attitude changed at all. In the subtitle 
of my Gifford Lectures I described myself as a ‘bottom-up 
thinker’. By that I meant that my habits of thought, formed 
by my scientific career, are to try to proceed from evidence to 
theory, from experience to understanding, and to be very wary 


29 



ISSUES 


of claims to know general principles in advance of particular 
encounters with reality. No quantum physicist could fail to be 
other than cautious about our powers of rational prevision. 

It is important to recognise, however, that the search for 
motivated belief is subtle and by no means a straightforward 
process. The point is best made, in the first instance, by con- 
sidering the process of scientific discovery itself. In the twenti- 
eth century, philosophers subjected the methods of science to 
intensive scrutiny. It would not be possible to claim that many 
conclusions have been reached that are widely agreed in the 
philosophical community or widely recognised as convincing 
by the scientific community. However, there has been one im- 
portant gain in understanding. It arises from a widespread ac- 
knowledgement that insight is best sought by looking at how it 
is that science is actually done. Attention is to be focussed first 
on the activities of scientists, rather than on speculations con- 
cerning general epistemological principles. The history of sci- 
ence, including most importantly the contemporary history 
of science, is an indispensable guide to the philosophy of sci- 
ence. In other words, a spot of bottom-up thinking has be- 
come fashionable in this area also. Any notion that science 
proceeds by the patient accumulation of facts, and their induc- 
tive consolidation into established truths, is rapidly dispelled 
by such an enquiry. A Baconian account of scientific method 
just does not work. 

In brief, there are five insuperable difficulties to so simple 
a story. The first is that there are no scientifically interest- 
ing facts that are not already interpreted facts. Raw registra- 
tions recorded in measuring apparatus are of no account on 
their own, without an understanding of how the instruments 
work and therefore what it is that they are measuring. Such 


30 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 


an understanding can come only from within science itself. 
Theory and experiment, therefore, inextricably intertwine. 
There is no impartial view from nowhere, only a perspec- 
tive from the somewhere of current theoretical insight. Sec- 
ond, all measurements are made in impure regimes, contami- 
nated by effects originating from causes extraneous to those 
that the experimenter desires to investigate. Scientists call this 
‘the problem of background’ and theory must be used to iden- 
tify, estimate and allow for these unwanted effects. Third, new 
theoretical ideas are born in the creative imaginations of their 
discoverers; they are not just read straight out of nature. Ein- 
stein once said that the theoretical basis of physics had to be 
‘freely invented’, originating from flashes of intuitive insight 
rather than from a plodding Baconian sifting of an assembly of 
‘for instances’. Fourth, theories always make universal claims 
going beyond the particularity of what has actually been in- 
vestigated. The philosophical problems of the justification of 
induction and of the underdetermination of theory by experi- 
ment draw our attention to this mismatch between infinite 
pretensions and a finite basis of experience. Fifth, there is the 
historical fact that from time to time, when theories are tested 
in hitherto unexplored regimes, they are found to need radical 
revision. In the end, even Newton had to give way to Einstein 
and Fleisenberg. 

These five features of scientific endeavour together make 
it all seem rather a precarious activity. Yet there is another as- 
pect of the actual experience of doing science that also needs 
to be taken into account. It is the cumulative gain of scien- 
tific understanding that gives rise to the belief in the com- 
munity of scientists that all their wearisome and costly efforts 
are worthwhile because they are yielding actual knowledge of 


31 



ISSUES 


the nature of the physical world. Theories may in principle 
be underdetermined by experiment, but when we add to the 
requirement of wide empirical adequacy the additional crite- 
ria for a ‘good’ scientific theory, that it should be concise and 
elegant in its formulation, displaying ‘naturalness’ and avoid- 
ing any air of mere contrivance, then, time and again, it both 
proves initially very difficult to find such a theory and also, 
when found, that theory proves unique and widely accepted as 
being the new form of understanding. That this agreement is 
not just the result of communally imposed intellectual taste, 
or of a slothful social consensus, seems indicated by the fruit- 
ful power of theories of this kind to yield understanding of 
new phenomena, vastly different from those that gave rise to 
the theory in the first place. This hallmark of extensive fertile 
intelligibility is taken by scientists to be the sign that they are 
in touch with reality. We believe in unseen and unseeable enti- 
ties, like quarks and gluons, because the assumption of their 
existence makes sense of great swathes of physical experience. 
Sustained explanatory power is a convincing encouragement 
to the belief that science advances by gaining a tightening grip 
of an actual reality. Of course, that grasp is never complete. 
The radical changes of understanding induced from time to 
time through the exploration of new regimes show that sci- 
ence never attains absolute truth but it can, at most, claim only 
verisimilitude. Scientists are the map-makers of the physical 
world and, like all careful map-makers, their charts, though 
not complete in every detail, prove superposable. We under- 
stand how the Newtonian map relates on an appropriate scale 
to the greater detailed accuracy of Einsteinian cartography 
(see also, chapter 5.1). Every established theory must retain in 


32 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

its own way the successes of its predecessors, as well as going 
beyond their accounts to new successes of its own. 

Science is never absolutely certain, nor is its method abso- 
lutely clear cut. Whether they know it or not, whether they like 
it or not, scientists live in an intellectual world that is rightly 
called postmodern. The clear and certain ideas of the Carte- 
sian modernist programme have proved to be unattainable, 
even in its paradigm discipline, natural science. But I believe 
that science can also help us to live in the postmodern age 
with integrity and intellectual hope. Contrary to the claims 
of some of its philosophical and sociological critics, and for 
the reasons that I have just sketched, science is not driven into 
a despairing relativism by the collapse of modernity. There is 
a middle way between intellectual certainty and intellectual 
doubt, between logical guarantees on the one hand and solip- 
sistic individualism or social determinism on the other. This 
middle way is often called critical realism: ‘critical’ because it 
acknowledges the problematics of motivated belief and con- 
cedes our inability to rid it of all intellectual precariousness; 
‘realism’ because it recognises, nevertheless, that we can attain 
a verisimilitudinous grasp of reality. 

The most helpful philosopher of this middle way is, I be- 
lieve, Michael Polanyi. Becoming a philosopher after a long 
and distinguished career as a physical chemist, he had insights 
that have been more readily accepted in the scientific com- 
munity, of which he was an insider, than in the philosophi- 
cal community, which still seems to treat him as an outsider. 
His greatest work is Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical 
Philosophy. He wrote it, he tells us, with the principal purpose 
of achieving ‘a frame of mind in which I may firmly hold to 


33 



ISSUES 


what I believe to be true, even though I know it might con- 
ceivably be false ’. 1 The key lies in recognising that knowledge 
is acquired by persons and that this feat requires the exercise 
of tacit skills of judgement (such as are involved in eliminat- 
ing background effects or— at a higher level — in adjudicating 
that a proposed theory possesses the characteristics that make 
it acceptable and scientifically ‘good’). These skills are not ex- 
haustively specifiable, for they are not algorithmic. They can- 
not be reduced to the following of a set of rules, but they have a 
tacit dimension to them. In consequence, they can be learned 
only within the convivial practice of a competent community. 
Polanyi says, 

the personal participation of the knower in all acts of 
understanding . . . does not make our understanding 
subjective. Comprehension is neither an arbitrary act 
nor a passive experience, but a responsible act claim- 
ing universal validity. Such knowing is indeed objec- 
tive in the sense of establishing contact with a hidden 
reality. ... It seems reasonable to describe this fusion of 
the personal and the objective as Personal Knowledge . 2 

I find Polanyi’s account of scientific knowing to be recognis- 
able and persuasive. It is the basis of the claim that I made 
in the first chapter of the importance of the personal in rela- 
tion to science as well as in relation to other forms of human 
encounter with reality. To this insight, I add another de- 
rived from the Irish-American philosopher of science, Ernan 
McMullin. He emphasises that critical realism, as exempli- 

1. M. Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958), 214. 

2. Ibid., vii-viii. 


34 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 


fied by science’s power to gain verisimilitudinous knowledge, 
is to be defended on the historical grounds that this is how it 
has actually proved to be. Indeed, McMullin speaks of critical 
realism as something that has been discovered empirically to 
be the case . 3 

An important point is being made here. A great deal of 
philosophical discussion is attempting the abstraction, and so 
the corresponding certainty, associated with the attainment of 
a universal view from nowhere. It tries to reach conclusions 
that do not appeal to the specificity of our circumstances. To 
try to speak of induction under the title of System of Logic, as 
John Stuart Mill did, or to criticise that but then go on to write 
The Logic of Scientific Discovery, as Karl Popper did, is to at- 
tempt a discourse that will have validity in all possible worlds. 
All our actual experience, however, is of the view from the 
somewhere of the particular kind of world that we inhabit. I 
think that we need to take this particularity very seriously. It 
is an actual fact of our experience, whatever may be the case 
in possible universes in general, that our universe is so consti- 
tuted, and we are persons so constituted within it, that general 
verisimilitudinous conclusions can be reached successfully on 
the basis of finite investigations; that the physical world is re- 
markably rationally transparent to us; in a word, that science 
is possible. I do not think that this is likely to be an analytic 
truth about universes in general, but rather it is a synthetic 
truth about our universe in particular. Nor, of course, do I 
think that this is just a happy accident. The deep intelligibility 
of the world is made understandable for me by the theological 


3. E. McMullin in J. Leplin (ed.), Scientific Realism (University of California 
Press, 1984), 8-40. 


35 



ISSUES 


insight that the universe is a creation and that we, to use an 
ancient but powerful way of speaking, are creatures made in 
the image of our Creator. 

I believe that this power of persons to achieve verisimili- 
tudinous knowledge of reality extends beyond our scientific 
encounter with the physical world. Science’s experience is that 
a degree of intellectual boldness in betting on the validity of 
the understandings we attain is rewarded by our gaining a de- 
gree of true insight into the way things are. This should en- 
courage other forms of human enquiry into reality. In par- 
ticular, it should encourage theology in its first-order task of 
reflecting on religious experience. If that claim is to be sub- 
stantiated, we first must reconsider the role that revelation 
plays in theological thinking. I believe that it bears an analogy 
with the role played by observations and experiments in sci- 
ence (see also, chapter 3). 

The laws of nature operate all the time. However, most 
physical process is too complex for us to be able to make out 
what is going on. Understanding is possible only if we have 
access to regimes that are particularly simple and so particu- 
larly transparent to our enquiry. It was good fortune in this 
respect that enabled modern astronomical theory to get going 
through the discoveries of Kepler and Newton about the be- 
haviour of the solar system and the nature of gravity. Because 
planetary orbits are nearly circular and non-intersecting, and 
because even the largest known planet, Jupiter, has a mass that 
is only 0.1% of the mass of the Sun, it was possible to gain a 
great deal of understanding piecemeal, considering one planet 
at a time in the first approximation. Anything more compli- 
cated than that would have produced chaotic motions that 


36 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

generations of Newtons would have been unable to unravel. 
In terrestrial physics, we are often not so lucky, but it is the art 
of the experimenter to contrive artificially simple situations in 
which what is of interest dominates and what is not of current 
concern can be eliminated or allowed for. 

God is always there, just as the laws of nature are always 
there, but it may well be that there have been particular mo- 
ments in history that have been unusually open to the divine 
presence, particular communities unusually responsive to the 
divine will, particular individuals unusually aware of the divine 
nature. These transparent occasions and inspired persons are 
the vehicles of God’s self-manifestation, sources of the spiri- 
tual insights whose record is what constitutes the revelation 
preserved in a religious tradition. Such a concept of revela- 
tion is one that should not be uncongenial to a scientist. The 
closer analogy is with the astronomers’ observations than with 
the physicists’ experiments, since encounter with the divine 
cannot be induced or contrived but it can only be received as 
gracious gift. 

Understood in this way, scripture, such as the Bible, is 
not a kind of divinely dictated textbook laying down the cor- 
rect answers to the examination questions of life, answers that 
we had better learn by rote and unfailingly reproduce. Scrip- 
ture is not an unchallengeable set of propositions demanding 
unquestioning assent, but it is evidence , the record of founda- 
tional spiritual experience, the laboratory notebooks of gifted 
observers of God’s ways with men and women. I am not say- 
ing, of course, that this evidential approach is the only way in 
which to read the Bible. Like all profound texts— those clas- 
sics which have the deep power to speak to us across the cen- 


37 



ISSUES 


turies, fusing the ‘two horizons’ 4 of past and present— the 
Bible can be read in many ways and at many levels. There is 
a spiritual way of reading in which we submit ourselves to its 
interrogation, rather than submitting its pages to our criti- 
cal scrutiny. Many testify to the power of scripture read in 
this way, and such a reading is central to my own spiritual 
life. Nevertheless, the Bible is also evidence, without which 
we would know next to nothing about ancient Israel and next 
to nothing about Jesus Christ, a people and a person whose 
influence has been fundamental to the formation of Western 
civilisation and who still have to be reckoned with in this sci- 
entific age. 

In a similar way, the Christian creeds are not non-nego- 
tiable formulae presented for us to sign without hesitation or 
question. Instead, they are concise summaries of the Church’s 
beliefs, arising from its intense reflection on the foundational 
events recorded in scripture and the continuing experiences 
of worship and obedience present in the lives of its members, 
who are seeking to live in the faith of the risen Christ. These 
credal statements are very concise (there are only 227 words in 
the standard English translation of the Nicene Creed) and I 
have compared them elsewhere to the data tables that all par- 
ticle physicists carry in their pockets, summaries of what we 
have come to know. Yet each generation has to make the creeds 
its own, bringing to them its own insights and its own per- 
plexities. 

This last remark points us to an important difference be- 
tween science and theology. The data tables of the particle 
physicists change as new discoveries are made or as measure- 

4. A. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Paternoster Press, 1980). 


38 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

ments become more accurate. But, after a sufficiently long 
winnowing process, each section of the tables will acquire a 
lasting stability. Science is cumulative; it conquers intellectual 
territory that it will not have to give up thereafter. The aver- 
age physics Ph.D. of today has a vastly better understanding 
of the physical world and its processes than Sir Isaac Newton 
ever did. This progressive increase of knowledge arises from 
science’s transcendence of its subject material, expressed most 
clearly in the interrogative power of experiment to put matters 
to the test. It results in an ability to reach verisimilitudinous 
conclusions that will continue to stand in the circumscribed 
domain in which they have been thoroughly tested. 

Theology is not cumulative in this way. Its Subject tran- 
scends human observers; the transpersonal reality of God is 
not open to our manipulation or putting to the test. Each gen- 
eration has its own experience of God and its own insights 
into the divine nature, but there is no presumptive superi- 
ority of a twentieth- century view over the understandings 
of past centuries. That is why theologians maintain a con- 
stant dialogue with the past— Paul and Augustine and Aquinas 
and Calvin are their continuing conversation partners— while 
scientists, however respectful they rightly are of the achieve- 
ments of Newton and James Clerk Maxwell, live very much in 
the present. In the sphere of religious knowledge, the English 
mystics of the fourteenth century, like Julian of Norwich or 
the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing , may well 
have had spiritual understanding that is attenuated or lost in 
our very different society today, and which we can recover 
only by making ourselves apprentices to their insights. 

At first, there might seem to be a difficulty here. I am 
maintaining that theological understanding is not the sole pos- 


39 



ISSUES 


session of any one generation, and that all that is needful is not 
necessarily in the hands of the contemporary. Rather, under- 
standing is spread over many generations, with each adding 
its own contribution, arising from its own perspective. There 
is, therefore, a need to seek some sort of integration of these 
diverse and varying insights. Yet we cannot honestly suppose 
that we have the power to become transtemporal thinkers. 
The resolution lies in recognising that, while we need release 
from the cultural prisonhouse of our own time— a release that 
can only come from continuing interaction with the ages that 
have preceded ours —we can only make their insights our own 
in our own way. 

The intellectual scene thus described is fluid, interactive, 
dynamic rather than static. A paradox might seem to arise 
when this account is compared with the unchanging character 
of credal formulae. The Nicene Creed of the churches today 
is exactly the same as that which was endorsed at the second 
Oecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381. How can an 
unchanging text be reconciled with continuing enquiry and 
the assertion that each generation has to make the Creed its 
own? The answer lies in recognising the character of credal 
statements. They are concise precisely because they do not 
seek to be exhaustively specific. Their purpose is not to define 
a point-like pinnacle of orthodoxy on which all must perch 
and from which it would be fatal to deviate by an inch. Rather, 
they stake out a territory within which a faithful theology is 
free to roam. This concept of openness within limits is essen- 
tial to theology. The mystery of God cannot be tied down 
to a series of precise propositions, but neither is it the case 
that ‘anything goes’. As the late Ian Ramsey liked to remind 
us, theological language is human language that is ‘stretched’ 


40 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

in some way in the effort to do some kind of justice to en- 
counter with the infinite reality of God . 5 That stretching has 
to be in the right direction. When we speak of God as per- 
sonal, we certainly mean something going beyond the finite 
limits of human personality. We use such language, not be- 
cause it is fully adequate, but because it is less misleading to use 
personal terms about God than it is to use impersonal terms. 
God is more like ‘Father’ than like ‘Force’, though we know 
we are not talking about an old man in the sky. The need for 
statement without narrow definition is why the open language 
of symbol is the natural language of theological discourse, in 
contrast to the precise language of mathematics, which is the 
natural language of discourse in physical science. 

Perhaps I can illustrate how theology attempts to articu- 
late its motivated beliefs by sketching some considerations 
relevant to a central Christian concern: Flow are we to under- 
stand the significance of Jesus Christ ? 6 We can see the discus- 
sion starting in the pages of the New Testament. Three of its 
most creative writers wrestle with the problem of how it is fit- 
ting to speak of him. Paul frequently brackets Jesus and God 
together, using phrases like ‘God the Father and our Lord 
Jesus Christ’. Fie calls Jesus ‘Lord’ more than two hundred 
times, making use of a title that would have had distinct divine 
overtones for Jews, who used the Hebrew equivalent /Mow//' as 
a way of referring to God without using the unutterable di- 
vine Name. Yet Paul, as a monotheistic believer in the God of 
Israel, refrains from saying out and out that Jesus is divine. 

5. I. T. Ramsey, Religious Language (SCM Press, 1957). 

6. Cf. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief /The Faith of a Physicist 
(SPCK/Princeton University Press, 1994) chs. 5-7; Belief in God in an Age of Science 
(Yale University Press, 1998), ch. 2. 


41 



ISSUES 


John expresses his understanding in the timeless discourses at- 
tributed to Christ in his gospel, in which Jesus is portrayed as 
affirming his unity with the Father, though he also says ‘My 
Father is greater than F (John 14:28). The unknown author 
of the Epistle to the Hebrews clearly states Jesus’ solidarity 
with humanity in suffering and testing but also tells of his ex- 
altation to be our Heavenly High Priest and speaks of him as 
bearing ‘the very stamp of [God’s] nature, upholding the uni- 
verse by his word of power’ (Heb. 1 : 3). In their three different 
ways, these writers show that they are driven to use divine lan- 
guage about Jesus, as well as human language, if they are to do 
justice to their experience and understanding of him. What 
this could mean is largely unresolved in the New Testament. 
The Christological problem is stated there, but it is not solved. 
One could say the same, I think, about the famous Definition 
issued by the fourth Oecumenical Council at Chalcedon in 
45 1. It stated most clearly that adequate Christian understand- 
ing must wrestle with the need to recognise both human and 
divine natures in Christ, without specifying a theory of how 
this combination of the finite and the Infinite was to be under- 
stood. It sought to set boundaries to the area of discourse 
within which faithful Christological thinking should be con- 
tained, but it did not provide a detailed map of the terrain. 

I am trying to make two points. One is that Christian 
theological discourse is not cut and dried, utterly prescriptive 
and allowing no room for subsequent intellectual manoeuvre. 
On the contrary, it encourages a diversity of contributions, 
while at the same time it sets limits to the range of possibilities 
that the Church can recognise as adequate to its experience. 
These limitations arise precisely from theology’s quest for 
motivated belief rather than indulging in unbounded specula- 


42 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 


tion; they are the theological equivalents of the requirements 
of empirical adequacy that set limits to the range of accept- 
able scientific theories. And that is my second point: Christian 
theology should be understood as a bottom-up response to 
religious experience, the search for a set of motivated beliefs. 

Let us continue to consider Christology a little further. I 
think that one can discern two principal constraining factors 
which determine the adequacy of any discussion that could fit- 
tingly be called Christian. One is provided by the resurrec- 
tion of Christ. There is, of course, a variety of ways in which 
Christians have sought to understand this unique event, whose 
character is both historical and transhistorical. The forms of 
these understandings are subject to the need to be loyal to 
the central affirmation of Christian experience, expressed in 
the conviction ‘Jesus lives!’. The motivations for that con- 
viction would require careful and extensive consideration. I 
made my contribution to this discussion in my Gifford Lec- 
tures 7 and I will not repeat that here. Let me be content just 
to say this: When we compare Jesus with other great spiritual 
leaders, the founders of world faiths, then there are a num- 
ber of similarities but there is also one very important dif- 
ference. They— Moses, Buddha, Mohammed— all die in hon- 
oured old age, surrounded by disciples resolved to carry on 
the work and message of the Master. Jesus dies in mid-life, 
painfully and shamefully executed, deserted by his followers 
and with a cry of dereliction on his lips, ‘My God, my God, 
why have you forsaken me?’ It seems the story of total and 
utter failure. If that really was where the story of Jesus ended, 
I think we would never have heard of him. His life would have 


7. See Polkinghorne, Belief/Faith , ch. 6. 


43 



ISSUES 


been that of a wandering preacher and miracle -worker whose 
significance proved in the end as transient as that of others 
of that kind who roamed the lands of the Eastern Mediter- 
ranean some two thousand years ago. Such people soon dis- 
appear from view. That has not happened to Jesus. He remains 
someone with whom, even today, we all have to reckon. Some- 
thing happened to prolong his story and bring it to us down 
through the centuries. I believe it was his resurrection from 
the dead. 

A second constraint on any Christological understanding 
is that it should do justice to the experience of Jesus’ followers 
from the first century to the present day, that the encounter 
with Christ brings with it an enabling and transforming power. 
The Christian testimony is that from Jesus we receive not just 
moral advice about how to live the good life, or even the ex- 
ample of such a life, but also the power by which to live out 
that life. The experience of the first disciples that their faith in 
the risen Christ had brought them this new way of living was 
one of the reasons why they felt driven to believe that the life 
of God was present in him in a totally unique way. 

Clearly these claims need much more extensive and care- 
ful consideration than I can give them here, but I hope I have 
said enough to indicate that Christian belief is not irrational 
assertion but it is motivated by Christian experience. What I 
have called the Christological constraints are the equivalent of 
a scientist’s evaluation of what are the phenomena that a new 
theory must be able to comprehend. However, scientific belief 
is not only motivated, it is also fruitful, convincing us by its 
power to yield understanding of phenomena beyond the range 
of those that led to the original formulation of the theory. 
Could theology conceivably make a similar claim? I think that 


44 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 


it can, within the limits of the necessarily more partial under- 
standing that finite beings can have of the infinite reality of 
God. Let me give you three examples. 

The first relates to the most difficult of all theological per- 
plexities, the problem of evil and suffering. I suggested in the 
first chapter that science gives theology some modest help by 
its recognition that an evolving world cannot be a world free 
from malfunctions or extinctions. However, the existential 
challenge of evil is too profound to be met solely by so coolly 
rational an argument. In the century of the Holocaust, the 
problem was rightly felt with a peculiar intensity. In response, 
Christian theology discovered that its doctrine of the incar- 
nation, its belief in God’s true presence in the humanity of the 
crucified Jesus even to the point of the paradoxical experience 
of the depths of God-forsakenness in the darkness of Calvary, 
yields an insight into a God who is not just a compassionate 
spectator of creation’s travail, but a fellow-sufferer within it. 
In the late middle ages, also a time of very widespread human 
pain and anguish, much Christian devotion centred on Jesus 
recognised as the Man of Sorrows. In the twentieth century, 
it was the profound image of the Crucified God that spoke 
to the deepest levels of Christian struggle with the terrible 
fact of evil. That image, so movingly presented in the work of 
Jurgen Moltmann that bears that title , 8 does not explain away 
the problem of suffering but it encounters it at the depth that 
its mystery demands. The central Christian concept of the in- 
carnation, of a God who truly shares in creaturely life, proves 
a rich source of continuing and developing theological insight. 

My second example concerns theology’s power to relate 


8. J. Moltmann, The Crucified God (SCM Press, 1974). 


45 



ISSUES 


to and illuminate a twentieth-century development in scien- 
tific understanding of the nature of the physical world. The 
Newtonian picture was of space as an empty container within 
which separate and individual particles collided and coalesced 
with each other in the course of a history characterised by 
the even flow of universal time. Twentieth- century science 
has replaced this atomistic account by something altogether 
more integrated and relational. Einstein’s theory of general 
relativity links together space, time and matter in an in- 
separable relationship. Physicists have discovered that in the 
quantum domain there is a counterintuitive ‘togetherness-in- 
separation’ (what we formally call, non-locality or entangle- 
ment) which means that once two entities have interacted with 
each other, they subsequently retain a power of mutual influ- 
ence, however widely they might have become separated. This 
EPR effect (named acronymically after its original proposers, 
Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen) has been 
verified experimentally as being a property of nature. In a fas- 
cinating antireductionist twist, it turns out that the subatomic 
world cannot be treated atomistically. A similar conclusion 
has been reached for many phenomena taking place at the 
level of everyday physical process. Chaos theory shows that 
most systems are not reliable mechanical ‘clocks’, but rather 
they are ‘clouds’, so sensitive to circumstance that the slightest 
disturbance will totally change their future behaviour. Enti- 
ties of this degree of delicacy can never be isolated from the 
effects of their environment. A calculation shows that to pre- 
dict whether an air molecule in a room will, after a minute 
fraction of a second, be moving towards the back wall or away 
from it, would require the literally universal knowledge of the 


46 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

location of every electron in the observable universe, so sen- 
sitive are such motions, even over very short periods of time, 
to the details of circumstance. 

Scientists and philosophers are still struggling to grasp 
all the implications of the astonishing degree of relationality 
that has been discovered to be present in the physical world. 
Theologians, however, can readily take it on board, for they 
have long known the interconnected and interrelated nature 
of reality. At the heart of their understanding is the Christian 
doctrine of the Trinity, not a curious piece of mystical arith- 
metic equating 3 and 1, but a recognition that the inner nature 
of God, the One who is the ground of all reality, is relationship 
between three divine Persons. This insight has been better 
preserved and pursued within the Eastern Church than within 
the Latin Church of the West. A leading Orthodox theolo- 
gian John Zizioulas has written a fine book with the title Being 
as Communion . 9 One could paraphrase that as ‘Reality as Re- 
lationship’. 

My third example has no scientific analogue. Religious 
insight involves not simply the provision of answers to intel- 
lectual questions; it also involves the transformation of the life 
of the questioner. My firm belief in quarks and gluons leaves 
most aspects of my life untouched. My committed Christian 
belief must have moral consequences for all that I am and do. 
Jesus put it with characteristic simplicity and directness, ‘You 
will know them by their fruits’. Here is a different kind of test 
of fertility, one that is intrinsic to the whole character of the 
religious life. No one could pretend that applying it yields im- 

9. J. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985). 


47 



ISSUES 


mediate and unambiguous conclusions. We have to consider 
the application of the test both at the level of individuals and 
of communities. 

All of us can think of people of orthodox belief who are 
fearful in their encounter with reality and mean-spirited in 
their treatment of others. But perhaps these are ‘background 
effects’, as a scientist would put it, resulting from persons 
whose lives have been distorted or impoverished by causes of 
which we are unaware and for which religion does not pre- 
tend to produce a magic cure, causes such as an unsympathetic 
upbringing or concealed ill-health. We can also all think of 
people of no religious faith whatsoever who display a gener- 
osity and compassion that is very attractive. Yet I would have 
to say, both concerning those whom I have known personally 
and also those historical characters of whom I have some ac- 
quaintance, that an impressive proportion of the most wise 
and good and trustworthy are people of religious faith. I shall 
not attempt a catalogue but let me just say that I suppose that 
one of the most widely admired people of recent times has 
been Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 

At the community level a similar degree of ambiguity 
has to be acknowledged. The history of the Church contains 
many episodes — crusades, inquisitions, forcible conversions 
—for which Christians can feel only a penitent sorrow. Yet 
there are countermovements to be set against these terrible 
deviations. The time of the Fourth Crusade in Egypt was also 
the time when Francis of Assisi denounced the excesses of the 
crusaders, crossed the military lines and had a long conver- 
sation on spiritual matters with the Sultan, who was deeply 
impressed, though not converted. It seems that the Body of 
Christ has its own spiritual immuno -suppressive system to 


48 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 

counteract the effects of infection by demonic distortion. It 
would be ungrateful and ungenerous for universities and hos- 
pitals not to acknowledge the Christian Church’s role over the 
centuries in fostering learning and providing for the care of 
the sick. 

Religion, therefore, has its claims to fruitfulness. Un- 
like science, and for reasons we have already discussed, the- 
ology’s search for understanding does not have the charac- 
ter of a steady accumulation of universally agreed results but, 
nevertheless, it is not without its revisionary advances. The 
pace of change maybe slow— it took eighteen centuries to rec- 
ognise that slavery is repugnant to the Christian conscience 
and a little longer to question whether a loving God imposes 
on finite beings the punishment of eternal torture — but there 
have been lasting gains in theological understanding. As for 
comprehensiveness — another quality much prized by scien- 
tists in their search for ‘good’ theories— I contend in chapter i 
that theology in its second- order role of theological meta- 
physics has a sustainable claim to the title of a Theory of 
Everything. 

My defence of theological understanding as providing 
the kind of motivated belief that can alone expect to command 
respect in a scientific age is coming to its end. I have sketched 
the kind of case that might be made by the community of 
Christian theologians. Were that community the whole of the 
theological world, my task would be concluded. But that, of 
course, is not the case. In contrast to the unified and world- 
wide scientific community, there is a largely regional collec- 
tion of disparate theological communities, mostly Christian 
or Jewish in Europe and North America, mostly Moslem in 
the Middle East, mostly Hindu in India, mostly Buddhist in 


49 



ISSUES 


much of East Asia, and so on. In contrast to the unanimity 
of the scientists on such fundamental issues as the existence 
of quarks and gluons or the molecular basis of genetics, there 
is no unanimity in the theological world even about so fun- 
damental an issue as the existence of one true God— Thera - 
vada Buddhism appears at best agnostic on the question. If 
theological beliefs are motivated beliefs, why are such con- 
trasting convictions generated in these different communi- 
ties? Is human destiny beyond death reincarnation, resurrec- 
tion or reabsorption in the ocean of being? Is the human self of 
unique and lasting significance, or is it an illusion from which 
to seek release? 

I can do little more than acknowledge the problem and 
say that I regard it as one of the most urgent and critical items 
on the contemporary theological agenda . 10 The complexity 
and subtlety of the great world faith traditions mean that this 
is a problem that cannot be expected to yield a quick and easy 
solution. No doubt, differing cultural histories and perspec- 
tives are the source of some of these differences of understand- 
ing and symbolic expression, but I do not think that this factor 
alone is sufficient to explain the apparently dissonant variety 
of the world faiths. Some theologians believe that they can dis- 
cern beneath the bewildering cognitive conflicts, a basic sub- 
strate of encounter with sacred Reality and a common call to 
human self-transcendence. There is too much work yet re- 
maining to be sure whether this is indeed the case. Let me 
content myself by saying two things. The first is that reli- 
gious understanding must start within a tradition, taking with 
great seriousness the experience and insight that tradition pre- 


io. See Polkinghorne, Belief/Faith , ch. io; Belief in God , 111-113. 


50 



MOTIVATIONS FOR BELIEF 


serves. Once again, there is no accessible view from nowhere, 
only a perspective from somewhere. That is why I am self- 
confessedly writing from a Christian point of view. I can do 
no other. The second point is the complement to the first, 
namely, that if theology is to be true to its essential nature as a 
search for truthful understanding, then these issues will not be 
pursued by means of each tradition stridently reasserting the 
total correctness and adequacy of its own exclusive point of 
view, but by a truth-seeking dialogue between the traditions, 
long and painful and difficult as that will surely be. The quest 
for motivated belief will take on a further dimension when it is 
pursued in the setting of this truly ecumenical meetingplace. 
There is a vital necessity that we should be willing to continue 
on this shared long search for the deepest truth about reality. 


51 



CHAPTER THREE 


The Role of Revelation 



or good or ill— and no doubt it is 
a mixture of both— my habits of 
thought are strongly influenced by my 
experience of working for many years 
as a theoretical physicist. I have al- 
ready explained in chapter 2 that I be- 
lieve the search for motivated belief is 


as of as much concern to the religious person as it is to the sci- 
entist. That is why I am able to be both. In the course of the 
argument, I made the claim— which may seem to some readers 
an outrageous piece of theological coat- trailing— that ‘reve- 
lation bears analogy with the role played by observations and 
experiments in science’ (p. 36). I have written about revelation 
in these terms before. 1 


It is clear to me, however, from conversations and certain 


reviews of my books, that suspicion still lurks in the minds of 


i. J. C. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (SPCK, 1991), chs. 4 and 5; Sci- 
ence and Christian Belief /The Faith of a Physicist (SPCK/Princeton University Press, 
1994), ch. 2. 


52 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 

many. They seem to think that religious believers enter into 
intellectual discussion with the ace of trumps of revelatory 
certainty hidden up their sleeves and with the brazen claim 
that it is the Holy Spirit who has put it there. There is no deny- 
ing, of course, that some believers operate in this way. ‘The 
Bible says . . .’, or ‘It is written in the Holy Qur’an . . .’, immedi- 
ately settles an issue for them. My respect for the depth and 
subtlety of scripture, together with the recognition that God- 
inspired utterances still remain humanly articulated utter- 
ances, does not allow me to use it in such a propositionally 
deterministic way. But why use it at all? some may say. What 
could be the continuing significance of writings some two to 
three thousand years old, originating in a small and fairly ob- 
scure community close to the Eastern shores of the Mediterra- 
nean? Such historical and geographical particularity is surely 
far too limiting to produce something of universal relevance. 

Two kinds of response could be made, the one broad 
in character, the other more specific. The broad point is to 
challenge the scientist’s innate inclination to favour generality 
over specificity and at the same time to question the assertion 
that the repeatable is always a more reliable source of evidence 
than the unique. Of course, the power of repetition carries 
with it (in principle and to some degree in practice) the possi- 
bility of general access to confirmation. If you do not believe 
that moving a magnet around in the presence of a copper wire 
will induce a current in the circuit, then try it for yourself and 
see that this is so. You do not have to take Michael Faraday’s 
word for it. If you do not believe in W and Z particles, you will 
probably have to take Carlo Rubbia’s word for it, since you will 
not be able to build an electron-positron collider in your back 
garden, but at least his results have been confirmed by col- 


53 



ISSUES 


leagues with access to similar facilities. However, if you want 
to gain support for your favoured version of a Grand Unified 
Theory, it is only the unique regime of the very early universe 
(itself accessible only through rather precarious conjectures 
about what was going on then) that will afford access to pro- 
cesses occurring at energies high enough to manifest grand 
unification effects. 

Even in laboratory science there is an important role for 
very specific regimes, often characterised by extreme values of 
certain parameters. I spent several years working on models 
of deep inelastic scattering. These phenomena consist of pro- 
cesses taking place at high energies and with large transfers 
of momentum between the colliding particles. It turned out 
that these conditions greatly simplified the kind of behaviour 
one might expect to find and this made them much easier to 
analyse than more ordinary scattering events, which are con- 
fusingly complex in character. Deep inelastic scattering played 
an important part in convincing physicists of the reality of 
the quark structure of matter, despite our inability to exhibit 
isolated quark constituents directly. The pursuit of simplicity 
through extremity is a powerful technique in physical science. 

It would not be surprising, therefore, if extreme and un- 
usual religious experiences, such as the mystic’s experience of 
unity with the One, or the contrasting numinous encounter 
with a Reality mysterious and fascinating in its otherness, pro- 
vide particularly significant revelatory insights into the nature 
of the sacred, despite their comparative rarity. There is a role 
for unique regimes within the impersonal domain of science, 
and so we may expect that also to be the case within the realm 
of personal and transpersonal experience with which religion 


54 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 


is concerned. One of our principal sources of understanding 
of what it means to be human is given us through the great 
literature of the world. Often it is apparently secular in its 
character, though I believe that in reality it is based on hid- 
den foundations in the sacredness of life . 2 Literature’s deep- 
est insights do not come from tales of a generalised Everyman 
figure, but from the specificities of an Emma Woodhouse or 
an Alyosha Karamazov. 

When we turn from the content of science to the prac- 
tice of science, a similar recognition of the role for the unique 
becomes apparent. I have already concurred with Michael 
Polanyi’s judgement that science is irreducibly an activity of 
persons. While the role of honest toilers in the scientific com- 
munity is certainly important, it is not possible to give a just 
account of the history of scientific discovery without also ac- 
knowledging the prime role of the men and women of genius 
whose deep insight has propelled their subject into its next 
great phase of advance . 3 Albert Einstein in the Patent Office 
in Berne, brooding on the nature of space and time, or Werner 
Eleisenberg on Eleligoland recovering from a bout of hay fever 
while wrestling with the perplexities of atomic spectra, repre- 
sent unique episodes in the history of physics. Because science 
is also driven by the nudge of nature, one could not claim that 
special relativity or quantum theory would have remained un- 
discovered without these two men. (After all, Erwin Schro- 
dinger, another man of genius, was hot foot on the track of his 
wave mechanical version of quantum mechanics.) But one can 


2. Cf. G. Steiner, Real Presences (Faber and Faber, 1989). 

3. Cf. J. C. Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge University Press, 
1996), ch. 4. 


55 



ISSUES 


say that progress would have been slow and piecemeal without 
the intuitive insights and creative leaps of the imagination of 
these geniuses. 

Great scientists have the gift of seeing the one thing 
needed at the time to advance their subject and of seeing it with 
clarity and concentration. One could say the same thing about 
notable prophetic figures within the history of religion. Jere- 
miah saw with painful precision that Judah was under God’s 
judgement because of its apostasy, that Egypt would not save 
it from the invading Babylonian armies and that the best hope 
lay in making what terms it could with Nebuchadnezzar (Jere- 
miah 36-44). It was an unpalatable message, rejected by his 
contemporaries. No doubt, in time lesser men, such as Geda- 
liah, came also to see, in a slow and piecemeal way, that this 
was so, but by then the inexorability of history had made it 
too late. 

Broad considerations of this kind suggest that it would be 
unreasonable to reject the possibility that a record of particu- 
lar people and particular events might be of unique impor- 
tance in theology’s quest for an understanding of the nature 
of ultimate reality. To this general argument can be added 
a further and more specific consideration. It arises from the 
actual experienced power of scripture to speak across the cen- 
turies, and across all the many cultural changes that intervene, 
to enlighten us in our day in ways that are meaningful and 
powerful. The fact of continuing study of the Bible by many 
people is something to be taken into account. In many ways 
it might seem astonishing that this venerable literature is still 
read with attention and spiritual profit when so many things 
have changed since its writing. After all, the great nation of 


56 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 

Jeremiah’s day was obviously the revived Babylonian empire 
and the great contemporary figure was its king, Nebuchad- 
nezzar. It would have greatly surprised the people of that day 
to learn that, two and a half millennia later, one of the main 
reasons the Babylonians and their monarch are remembered is 
because they intervened in the affairs of that second rate state, 
Judah. And Judah is known today because, imperfectly and 
often unfaithfully, it had a knowledge and experience of God 
that still seems relevant to us. This is a remarkable reversal of 
what would have seemed the realities of the time. Persistence 
of a people and their writings is a phenomenon that is worth 
investigating. It calls for explanation. Once, when someone 
was asked for evidence of the existence of God, he simply re- 
plied ‘the Jews’. The survival of this race, despite its many 
setbacks and terrible persecutions, is something to be under- 
stood. The idea that God revealed something of the divine 
nature in and through this people is a hypothesis that should 
be given serious consideration. 

Similar arguments apply to the New Testament period. 
Jesus was a wandering preacher and healer who wrote no book 
and who died a painful and shameful death, deserted by his 
followers. Why is it that we have heard of him and that he is 
still someone to be reckoned with, by Christian believer and 
by unbeliever alike? 

Answers in terms of sheer historical accident, or the stub- 
born persistence of entrenched positions, seem inadequate to 
the phenomena. The possibility of revelation, of God made 
known through persons and events, is one that deserves a place 
on any agenda of rational enquiry. It is not my present pur- 
pose to argue that this is in fact the right assessment, though 


57 



ISSUES 


that is what I believe and what I have defended elsewhere . 4 I 
simply wish to suggest that recourse to the Bible as a source of 
knowledge about God is not a strategy of superstition, fideism 
or obscurantism but a proper part of reasonable theological 
enquiry. Appeal to revelation is not the closure of theological 
discussion but the ground of its initiation. 

So far I have been speaking of revelation as evidence on 
which a theological understanding can be based. Treated in 
this mode, it consists of material that is to be subjected to our 
investigation. If it is to motivate our belief, it must first be 
subjected to tests of its reliability. What is the trustworthi- 
ness of the gospels in their accounts of the words and deeds of 
Jesus? How are we to evaluate the stories that he was seen alive 
after his death and that the tomb was found empty? There 
are clearly stories in the Bible (Adam and Eve in the gar- 
den) that convey deep truth through imaginative narrative, 
but which we do not have to believe are matter-of-fact his- 
torical occurrences. How are we to tell myth from history, 
and to what extent does the discrimination matter? These are 
again questions that I have attempted to address elsewhere , 5 
and it is not necessary now to attempt to repeat that discus- 
sion in detail. It is an analysis that cannot take a general form 
but it must concern itself with the assessment of the particular 
instances under consideration. Nevertheless, there are some 
general characteristics that feature in any specific treatment 
of these questions. 

There is an inescapable tension involved between, on 
the one hand, the acknowledgement that uniquely significant 

4. Polkinghorne, Belief/Faith. 

5. Ibid. 


58 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 

events may well have about them unusual or unprecedented 
characteristics which are part of the reason for believing them 
to carry a revelatory significance and, on the other hand, the 
recognition that also there must be some degree of resonance 
with ordinary human experience if these events are to be intel- 
ligible to later generations. There must be an element of novel 
disclosure present, but of such a form that what had previously 
been dimly perceived or hoped for is now seen clearly to be 
the case. Thus the resurrection of Christ, though an event sui 
generis , can also be understood as confirming a deep human 
intuition that death shall not ultimately have the last word. 
This revelatory dimension corresponds to the understanding 
conveyed in St John’s gospel that miracles are ‘signs’— not di- 
vine tours de force in which God shows oft divine power, but 
windows into a deeper view of reality than would otherwise 
be visible. 6 There are some analogies here with the scien- 
tific exploration of a new regime of physical experience. Quite 
unexpected and puzzling phenomena can show up, but even- 
tually they must be relatable to phenomena that are already 
familiar. The discovery of superconductivity at low tempera- 
tures cast new light on the behaviour of electrons in metals, 
but ultimately it had to be capable of being correlated with the 
ordinary phenomena of conduction for which Ohm’s law had 
proved so reliable a guide at ordinary temperatures. 

However important specific revelatory experiences may 
be, theological discourse cannot centre exclusively on unusual 
events in which the divine presence and activity may most 
clearly be seen. It must also have as its concern the ambigui- 
ties that characterise so much else of life and history. In Isra- 

6. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence (SPCK, 1989), ch. 4. 


59 



ISSUES 


elite terms, theology must concern itself not only with the 
Exodus deliverance from Egypt but also with the more per- 
plexing events of the destruction of the Temple and the Exile 
into Babylon. In ordinary human terms, it must concern itself 
not only with miracles of healing but also with the many sad 
cases in which physical recovery is earnestly desired but not 
forthcoming. In its interrogative mode, theology must con- 
sider not only the edifying but also the baffling and disturbing. 
One of the striking features of ancient Jewish encounter with 
God is the frankness with which protest and puzzlement are 
expressed, particularly in the Psalms. ‘Why, O Lord, do you 
stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ 
(Psalm io : i). A robust theology will not recoil from the pain- 
ful questions of theodicy . 7 

Yet, theology cannot conduct the whole of its discourse 
in a questioning and challenging mode. That is because all 
intellectual search for understanding must be conformed to, 
and seek to respect, the nature of the entity being consid- 
ered. Christians certainly have reason to believe that God will 
honour the integrity and honest intent that lead to wrestling 
with the perplexities of a world both fruitful and painful in 
its character, but we have reason also to believe that true en- 
counter with God will be characterised by awe and obedience. 
Receiving revelation will not only involve evaluating evidence 
but also it will involve an acceptance of what is given and an 
appropriate response to the gift. Faith in God is not simply 
an intellectual strategy of metaphysical explanation; it is a 
commitment of life involving the person at all levels of being. 
There is, therefore, both an active and a passive component in 

7. Ibid., ch. 5. 


60 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 

the human response to revelation. The way that the balance is 
struck between investigation and reception, challenge and ac- 
ceptance, mind and heart, will have a decisive effect upon the 
kind of theological thinking that will result. 

Those of us whose intellectual formation has been in sci- 
ence will tend to be questioning activists in our response to 
revelation. I have already emphasised its evidential role. We 
are thinkers ‘from the bottom up’. Did it happen? What can 
it mean? are the questions on our agenda. Natural theology is 
an important pursuit for us. We do not suppose that we can 
prove God’s existence from the order and fertility of the uni- 
verse (any more than we can strictly prove the existence of 
the unseen quarks), but we would be troubled if we did not 
feel we could discern some ‘hints of divinity’ in what we know 
about the structure and history of the cosmos. The tone of 
our writings, at best, tends to be cooly rational — persuasive, 
we hope, because of its appeal to the deeper intelligibility that 
theism affords in its account of a unified view of knowledge. 
Among the critics of this kind of response it is often thought 
that the passion and beauty of the encounter with God has 
been drained out by its kind of senior common room reason- 
ableness. The existential realities of the religious life’s costly 
commitment and sustaining hope have not been given their 
due. Scientist-theologians like myself have to take these criti- 
cisms seriously. 

What one might call the passive accepting response to 
revelation emphasises the humble and obedient reception of 
the Word that God has spoken. Its thinking is ‘from the top 
down’. It looks askance at those human efforts, such as natural 
theology, that attempt to climb the foothills of the divine from 
the plain of common experience and under the guidance of 


61 



ISSUES 


reasonable enquiry. In the twentieth century, the whole move- 
ment stemming from Karl Barth was a powerful expression 
of this understanding of the primacy of revelation as given. It 
does not deny the value of the human intellect but it places a 
low assessment on its relevance to matters divine. It does not 
deny the value of secular modes of human rational enquiry but 
it believes that they have little to offer to the distinctive theo- 
logical task. 

It seems clear that either approach, if pursued in isolation, 
can lead to serious distortion. Theology cannot rightly pro- 
ceed either as if God were just yet another object of enquiry, or 
as if its proper place was in a fideistic ghetto, walled- off from 
other forms of knowledge. A striking example of the inter- 
twining of the two approaches is contained in the book of Job. 
In chapters 3 to 37 there are long arguments between Job and 
his friends about the significance of the disasters that have be- 
fallen him and his family. The friends are sure that they are 
God’s punishment for secret sins in Job’s past and they urge 
him to acknowledge that this is so. For his part, Job protests 
that this is not true and he longs to put his case to God di- 
rectly: ‘But I would speak with the Almighty and I desire to 
argue my case with God’ (Job 13:3). There are passages of bit- 
ter protest at the heaviness of the blows that have fallen on 
him: ‘I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by 
the neck and dashed me to pieces’ (Job 16:12). The arguments 
ebb and flow and their mode is clearly that of active question- 
ing. In chapter 38, the Lord begins to speak to Job from out of 
the whirlwind. The longed-for confrontation between distant 
deity and suffering humanity is taking place, but its form is 
quite different from what might have been anticipated on the 
basis of what had gone before. God simply points Job to the 


62 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 

majesty of creation and the plurality of the divine concerns 
with what is going on therein. Referring to a mythical mon- 
ster who symbolises non-human life, the Lord says ‘Look at 
Behemoth, which I made just as I made you’ (Job 40:15). The 
detailed perplexities of the preceding discussion are left unad- 
dressed, yet it seems that the passive acceptance of the revela- 
tion of the divine presence is a sufficient answer for Job. ‘I had 
heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees 
you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’ 
(Job 42: 5-6). 

The poetic account of these chapters is set within a prose 
story of yet another character. It begins with a wager in the 
heavenly court between the Lord and Satan about whether Job 
will remain faithful and not deny God, even if he loses his 
family and his flocks and herds. It ends with Job being ‘com- 
pensated’ by raising a second family and the restoration of his 
flocks and herds, doubled in size. This is not the language of 
responsible theological discourse at all, but of ‘folk religion’, 
with its concept of a disturbingly ‘tricksy’ God who never- 
theless deals out substantial rewards to those who are lucky 
enough to please the divine fancy. 

Are we to regard this last picture of God as being as 
authoritatively revelatory as the more sophisticated account 
given in the poetic sections of Job, just because it comes to 
us as part of the same biblical book? I do not think we can. 
Scripture is not uniform in its character, not only because it 
contains many different genres (poetry, prose, history, story, 
etc.) but also because of its being a human record compiled by 
many different people at different times in different cultural 
settings. Inevitably it expresses attitudes (to women, genocide 
and slavery, for instance) which we cannot endorse today. In- 


63 



ISSUES 


evitably, its world view is in many ways different from ours, not 
least because of the discoveries of science about the structure 
and history of the universe. Inevitably, it records all sorts of 
details that seem of no relevance to us today (the long lists of 
genealogies in i Chronicles 1-9, for instance). Yet having made 
all these necessary concessions, there remains an overall power 
and insight contained within the pages of the Bible to which 
I would certainly wish to testify. So complex and pluriform 
a book will be treated in complex and pluriform ways by its 
readers. Those of us who wish to take its revelatory potential 
seriously will certainly do so in a variety of ways. Nevertheless 
there does seem to be a sufficient general sense of the thrust of 
the Bible, in its testimony to the God of Israel and the God and 
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to provide a common ground 
on which we can meet and share our insights and our disagree- 
ments. I feel that I can discern a cousinly relationship between 
myself and many other Christians as we seek to bring mod- 
ern knowledge and ancient experience together in a consonant 
combination. The endeavour affords a degree of comprehen- 
siveness that neither source of understanding could confer on 
its own and that maintains a continuous connection between 
the wisdom of the past and the insights of the present. As I 
wrote in my own attempt to articulate a contemporary under- 
standing of historic Christian faith, 

For me, the Bible is neither an inerrant account of 
propositional truth nor a compendium of timeless 
symbols, but a historically conditioned account of cer- 
tain significant encounters and experiences. Read in 
this way, I believe it can provide the basis for a Chris- 
tian belief which is certainly revised in the light of our 


64 



THE ROLE OF REVELATION 

twentieth century insights but which is recognisably 
contained within an envelope of understanding in con- 
tinuity with the developing doctrines of the Church 
throughout the centuries . 8 

If Judaism and Christianity were the only two world reli- 
gions, there would not be much more to say. But, of course, 
there are other claimed sources of revelation of the nature 
of the sacred, originating from the traditions of other world 
faiths, which I have not mentioned at all. These accounts are 
by no means easily reconciled with the Bible or with each other 
and I have already said that I am acutely aware of the difficul- 
ties that this poses for the idea that God has made the divine 
nature known to humankind (chapter 2). I regard this issue as 
one of the most important items on our contemporary theo- 
logical agenda , 9 and I regret that I have nothing new to add on 
this occasion. As a scientist I am not unacquainted with the 
necessity of sometimes living with unresolved difficulties and 
for the moment this is all I can do when faced with the ap- 
parent cognitive clashes of the world faiths. I do not believe 
that progress would come from denying the reality of others’ 
religious experience or of my own Christian convictions. 


8. Polkinghorne, Belief /Faith , p. 8. 

9. Polkinghorne, Belief/Faith , ch. 10; Scientists as Theologians (SPCK, 1996), 
ch. 5; Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 1998), 90-91; 111-113; 
Science and Theology (SPCK, 1998), ch. 7. 


65 



CHAPTER FOUR 


Design in Biology? 


n the book of Proverbs we read, 
‘Three things are too wonderful for 
me; four I do not understand: the way 
of an eagle in the sky, the way of a ser- 
pent on a rock, the way of a ship on 
_ the high seas, and the way of a man 
with a maid’ (Proverbs 30:18-19). Be- 
hind this assorted list of marvels, both natural and human, 
there clearly lies a feeling of awe at the world that God has 
made. When the Lord speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, a 
similar invocation is made of the mysterious wonder of cre- 
ation (Job 38-41). The ancient Hebrews respected what we 
call nature, but they got nowhere near science. The observant 
gaze of the natural historian was the most that they could man- 
age. When at length modern science came on the scene, its 
discoveries, particularly those revealed through the invention 
of the microscope, served to promote an enthusiastic appeal 
to an argument for the Creator’s existence based on the appar- 
ent design of creation. Although this activity was often called 


66 



DESIGN IN BIOLOGY? 


‘physico-theology’, much of the discussion was in fact biologi- 
cal. Philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant 
might list their objections: that there were imperfections in 
nature (disease and disaster); that there might have been sev- 
eral gods who had had a hand in the enterprise; that at best 
it suggested a powerful, but not necessarily infinite, designer; 
that it was all too anthropomorphic in its style. Yet, from John 
Ray to William Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Trea- 
tises (see chapter 8), the claims of this kind of natural the- 
ology were vigorously asserted and it all seemed very plausible 
to many. 

Charles Darwin put an end to all that. Natural selec- 
tion, operating over vast tracts of time, presented an alterna- 
tive understanding. The apparent products of design could, 
in fact, evolve naturally without the need for the direct inter- 
vention of a divine Designer. An alternative scientific insight 
had achieved what philosophical criticism had failed to do. By 
the twentieth century, metabiology was no longer the happy 
hunting ground of theistic argument but it had become an 
atheistic waste from which the essential meaninglessness of 
cosmic process would be proclaimed. 1 

Retrospectively, one can see that two theological mis- 
takes had been made. One was the attempt to rival science on 
the latter’s own explanatory ground. We expect to use physics 
to understand ‘the way of a ship on the high seas’. Equally, 
we should expect to use biological insights as much as we can 
to understand the history of life on Earth. The second error 
was to take too narrow a view of God’s means of creation, 
as if discontinuous decree was to be preferred to the stealthy 


i. J. Monod, Chance and Necessity (Collins, 1972). 


67 



ISSUES 


continuity of the outworking of the divinely ordained laws of 
nature. Continuous creation is a proper concept for the theo- 
logian to consider. 

Theology is a complement to science and not an alter- 
native. Accordingly, contemporary natural theologians have 
turned from arguments about the outcomes of natural pro- 
cesses to the firmer ground that is provided by consideration 
of the laws of nature themselves. After all, those laws are sci- 
ence’s given starting point, but it is conceivable that they are 
not so self-explanatory that it is intellectually satisfying to re- 
gard them as simple brute fact. Cosmology and physics have 
now moved onto centre stage. Attention focusses on the An- 
thropic Principle’s recognition of the astonishing specificity 
that is required of the fundamental physical laws of a universe 
if it is to be capable of evolving carbon-based life. Is, then, the 
fertility of our actual world a happy accident, or is it an indica- 
tion that we are part of what is just one universe among a vast 
ensemble of different worlds, or is it a sign of the Creator’s 
endowment of an inbuilt potentiality to creation? The can- 
vassing of these different conceivable responses indicates the 
modest and exploratory character of contemporary thinking 
in natural theology. 

A surprising recent development is the re-entry of some 
biologists into the teleological conversation. This revived dis- 
cussion has been conducted at three different levels. The first 
of these is an extension of the kinds of argument about physi- 
cal law that the physicists used in connection with uncover- 
ing the specificity of an anthropic universe. For example, one 
can consider the properties of water that make that remark- 
able fluid so necessary and effective for the development of 
life (at least as we know it terrestrially). A familiar instance 


68 



DESIGN IN BIOLOGY? 


is water’s anomalous decrease of density near freezing point, 
which means that lakes freeze from the top downwards and so 
do not become huge blocks of solid ice, destroying the living 
creatures that are in their waters. Many other unusual aqueous 
properties have implications for life, for example: 

(i) very high latent heats of freezing and evaporation (mod- 
erating climate change; providing an effective cooling 
mechanism for warm-blooded animals); 

(ii) high specific heat (the oceans controlling seasonal varia- 
tions of temperature within acceptable limits); 

(iii) very high thermal conductivity in the liquid state (effi- 
cient heat transfer within living beings); 

(iv) low thermal conductivity of ice and snow (protective in- 
sulation in cold climates); 

(v) ability to dissolve almost all chemicals, at the least to a 
slight but detectable degree (carrying necessary minerals 
from the land into the sea, where life began to develop 
using this material). 

These are just a selection of the life-supporting prop- 
erties of water. More extensive discussions of the indispens- 
able roles of water in relation to life have been given by Law- 
rence Henderson 2 and Michael Denton . 3 The latter goes on to 
give many more examples of properties of the physical world 
that seem ‘tuned’ to life’s necessities. For instance, the radi- 
ation from the Sun peaks at frequencies that are just right for 
inducing photochemical reactions (readily facilitating photo- 


2. L. J. Henderson, The Fitness of the Environment (Beacon Press, 1958). 
(First published in 1912.) 

3. M. J. Denton, Nature's Destiny (Free Press, 1998). 


69 



ISSUES 


synthesis and many other important biochemical processes). 
The absorption spectrum of the atmosphere provides a win- 
dow that lets through light at these biologically useful fre- 
quencies and also (including the effects of the Earth’s ozone 
layer) excludes harmful ultraviolet radiation. The chemistry 
of life is the chemistry of carbon, whose strong (covalent) 
chemical bonds enable the formation of the intricate mole- 
cules basic to life, with an effectiveness that is maximal at the 
temperatures at which water is liquid. Carbon’s weak (non- 
covalent) chemical bonds are what generate the three-dimen- 
sional folded structures whose shapes play so vital a role in the 
operation of proteins and DNA in the living cell. These fruit- 
ful correlations depend upon coincidences between physical 
processes that appear to have no intrinsic mutual relation- 
ship. Of course, natural selection capitalises on these coinci- 
dences (photosynthesis presumably evolved in a way that made 
efficient use of the available energy source), but they have 
to be present in the physical fabric in the first place for this to 
be possible. 

Various different kinds of argument are being deployed 
here. Properties of matter, such as the physical characteristics 
of water, derive fundamentally from the nature and strength 
of the electromagnetic interactions that determine the be- 
haviour of condensed matter. Chemical bonds, similarly, are 
electromagnetic in origin. Arguments relating to these issues 
are similar to those employed by astrophysicists when they link 
the generation of elements within stars to the fundamental 
properties of nuclear forces. The only real difference is that 
they are somewhat less transparent in character, because of 
the greater difficulty in understanding details of the behaviour 
of complex systems such as large molecules. These properties 


70 



DESIGN IN BIOLOGY? 

have universal significance, for they would be the same on any 
planet. 

In contrast, the argument relating to the matching of 
the Sun’s radiation spectrum to atmospheric penetration and 
photochemical efficiency is not anchored in such generality. 
It is specifically environmental in character (our particular 
planet happens to be near a particular star). There are many 
other considerations of this specific kind. For example, it is 
thought that the possession of a large satellite (the Moon) 
favoured the Earth as a location for life’s development through 
such ‘useful’ phenomena as the scouring action of strong tides 
and the stabilising effect of the Moon on the Earth’s rotation. 
Even the existence of the massive planet Jupiter has had an 
effect on terrestrial life, serving to act as a partial deflector 
of dangerous comets and meteors, whose impacts would have 
had deleterious consequences. Not much significance should 
be attached to these fortunate aspects of our location. There 
are likely to be vastly many planetary systems in the universe, 
so it is scarcely surprising that a plethora of desirable specific 
conditions should be fortuitously fulfilled somewhere. (They 
are, however, relevant to speculations about how widespread 
life is in the cosmos.) 

The first level of discussion, as sketched above, relates to 
what one might call the ground rules of the Game of Life. 
The second level is concerned with the question of the ex- 
tent to which the actual playing of the Game may, at least to 
some degree, be constrained by a series of forced moves. Are 
the shuffling explorations of evolutionary history purely ran- 
dom (as neo-Darwinian theory proclaims), with survival fit- 
ness the only controlling factor, or does the story also include 
the effects of certain propensities that steer developments in 


71 



ISSUES 


certain pre-determined directions? Darwinian true believers 
are notably resistant to the suggestion that their theory might 
benefit from considering the possibility of augmented insight. 
One may suspect that metaphysical prejudgements underlie 
much of this resistance (radical randomness appeals to some), 
but it is surely a scientific question that is being posed in the 
first instance. In fact, there is some independent source of en- 
couragement to take propensities seriously. Stuart Kauffman 4 
has suggested that the order-generating properties of com- 
plex systems may be highly significant for biology and that 
many basic structures present in living creatures may be con- 
sequences of ahistorical necessity rather than the deposits of 
historical contingency. This claim challenges the oft-repeated 
assertion that every re-run of biological evolution (were that 
a possibility) would result in radically different outcomes. Of 
course, there is historical contingency present in what has 
happened, but what is being said is that this may lie more in the 
details than in the generality of the overall resulting patterns . 5 * 

Christian de Duve, who won a Nobel Prize for his work 
on the structural and functional organisation of the living cell, 
supports this point of view. He writes: 

My reasons for seeing the universe as meaningful lie 
in what I perceive as its built-in necessities. Monod 
stressed the improbability of life and mind and the pre- 
ponderant role of chance in their emergence, hence the 
lack of design in the universe, hence its absurdity and 
pointlessness. My reading of the same facts is differ- 

4. S. A. Kauffman, The Origins of Order (Oxford University Press, 1993). 

5. Cf. S. Conway-Morris, The Crucible of Creation (Oxford University Press, 

199 8 )- 


72 



DESIGN IN BIOLOGY? 


ent. It gives chance the same role, but acting within 
such a stringent set of constraints as to produce life 
and mind obligatorily, not once but many times. To 
Monod’s famous sentence ‘The universe was not preg- 
nant with life, nor the biosphere with man,’ I reply: 
‘You are wrong. They were ’. 6 

Denton is even more confident: 

I believe the evidence strongly suggests that the cos- 
mos is uniquely fit for only one type of biology— that 
which exists on earth — and that the phenomenon of 
life cannot be instantiated in any other exotic chemis- 
try or class of material forms. Even more radically, I 
believe that there is a considerable amount of evidence 
for believing that the cosmos is uniquely fit for only 
one type of advanced intelligent life — beings of design 
and biology very similar to our own species . 7 

A number of comments should be made about this second 
level of the discussion of design issues in biology: 

(i) No one denies a role for historical contingency. How- 
ever anthropically pregnant the universe may have been, it 
was not uniquely destined to produce homo sapiens, in all 
our anatomical and physiological specificity. The strongest as- 
sertion being made by anyone is that beings like ourselves in 
complexity and capacity were a realisable potentiality, present 
from the start and to be expected to evolve somewhere. 

(ii) Much uncertainty must inevitably attach to the claims 
being made, as well, of course, as to any negation of those 

6. C. de Duve, Vital Dust (Basic Books, 1995). 

7. Denton, Destiny , xiii. 


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ISSUES 


claims. Our understanding of the nature and behaviour of 
complex systems is rudimentary; our insights into the path- 
ways by which life developed on Earth are contentious and 
unsure; the problems involved in the full understanding of the 
functioning of even a single cell are immense. When Denton 
discusses the question of whether the terrestrial genetic code is 
uniquely suitable for life, he has to confess ‘This is a problem- 
atical area and no clear answer can be given at present ’. 8 The 
most one can say is that very interesting questions have been 
put onto the biological agenda, of a kind that might once have 
been supposed to have been excluded from it. The status of the 
discussion is very different from that involved in the physicists’ 
contributions to the Anthropic Principle. In this latter case, 
all competent scientists agree on the scientific issues and it is 
only their further possible metaphysical consequences that are 
matters of controversy. For biologists, many of the scientific 
issues themselves remain contested. 

(iii) If the authors quoted above prove in the end to have 
the better of the argument, what will have been attained would 
be the recognition of inbuilt teleological tendencies in the de- 
velopment of life within nature. This recognition would be 
compatible with a purely naturalistic account, though one en- 
riched in its insights compared with the flat neo-Darwinian 
account. Of course, such striking a degree of potentiality pres- 
ent in the structure of the universe would also be compatible 
with a theistic understanding that this intrinsic fertility ex- 
pressed the will of the Creator who holds the world in being 
and ordains its character. Indeed, it might be held to encour- 
age such a view, though not with the force of logical neces- 


8. Ibid., 161. 


74 



DESIGN IN BIOLOGY? 


sity. In all metaphysical discourse, there is always the question 
of how far one wishes to push the search for an intellectually 
satisfying explanatory basis. Is it enough to rest content with 
the brute fact of natural law or should one look further to an 
Agent whose steadfast will is taken to be the basis for the per- 
ceived regularities of nature and their fruitful consequences? 
The authors who have been appealed to in this second level 
of the discussion express positive degrees of teleological be- 
lief, but they are reserved about taking explicitly the further 
step towards theistic interpretation. (God does not appear in 
Denton’s index.) 

The third level of the discussion is concerned with much 
stronger claims still. Michael Behe 9 believes that biochemis- 
try poses problems that conventional Darwinism is incapable 
of solving. His central idea is that of irreducible complexity , 
which he defines as ‘a single system composed of several well- 
matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic func- 
tion, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the 
system to effectively cease functioning ’. 10 Behe describes five 
biological examples of what he believes are such irreducibly 
complex systems: the cilia that allow some cells to swim; the 
blood clotting system; intracellular transport of proteins; an- 
tibodies; the living synthesis of the biochemical denoted by 
AMP (which requires thirteen steps and involves the actions 
of twelve enzymes). These examples pose an evolutionary 
problem, for if they are correctly characterised as irreducible, 
their all-or-nothing, package deal character would mean that 
we cannot envisage their gradual, step-by-step evolution in 

9. M. J. Behe, Darwin's Black Box (Free Press, 1996). 

10. Ibid., 39. 


75 



ISSUES 


the classical Darwinian manner. In relation to such large-scale 
structures as bodily organs, Darwin himself had acknowl- 
edged that ‘if it could be demonstrated that any complex organ 
existed which could not possibly have been formed by numer- 
ous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would break 
down ’. 11 Behe believes that he has demonstrated just such cases 
at the small-scale level of biochemistry and, of course, these 
examples, if correct, would be equally fatal to conventional 
Darwinism. Behe sees this as constituting evidence for what 
he calls ‘intelligent design’, meaning ‘the purposeful arrange- 
ment of parts ’. 12 He is cautious and reserved, however, in what 
he says about identifying the putative designer. The word is 
never spelt with a capital D and, again, God is not in the index. 
Yet those who have enthusiastically welcomed Darwin’s Black 
Box have mostly had no such scruples. The book has been 
widely read as supporting a kind of creationist intervention- 
ism, involving miraculous direct divine action, rather than a 
gentle providential guidance exercised within the openness of 
natural process, of the kind that ‘theistic evolutionists’ tend to 
favour. 

We have seen that the questions Behe poses are the micro- 
scopic counterparts of similar macroscopic questions asked 
at the time of the publication of The Origin of Species. Dar- 
win himself, in his careful and scrupulous way, was troubled 
about how the gradual evolution of so complex and well- 
integrated a system as the human eye could have come about. 
Most present-day evolutionary theorists believe that they can 
suggest speculative but plausible pathways by which this might 


11. Quoted, ibid. 

12. Ibid., 193. 


76 



DESIGN IN BIOLOGY ? 

have happened. This claim is reinforced by the consideration 
that eyes seem to have evolved independently many times in 
the course of life’s history. (Perhaps there has been a role here 
for those intrinsic structures whose existence is suggested by 
the insights of complexity theory.) Much less attention seems 
to have been given so far to the analogous problems at the bio- 
chemical level, other than in the case of the many and uncer- 
tain speculations about the origins of RNA, DNA and pro- 
teins in the first place. Behe certainly seems to raise significant 
issues for biologists to address but, to a by-standing physicist, 
it seems premature to conclude that an essential irreducibility 
has been firmly established. 

Perhaps the most judicious conclusion about the revival 
of teleological issues in biology might follow along similarly 
cautious lines. Important and significant questions have been 
raised. A bleak and minimal reductionalist naturalism is not 
the only intellectually respectable option, even at the scientific 
level. Theists can take heart at that, but they would be unwise, 
at present, to attempt to rest too strong a case on an uncertain 
foundation. 


77 



CHAPTER FIFE 


Second Thoughts 



ntellectual progress is usually a 
step-by-step process. The great ge- 
niuses may make huge leaps of cre- 
ative power, but the rest of us plod 
along, from time to time feeling that 
we understand a little more than we 
had before. I want to offer some fur- 
ther remarks about issues that have been part of my thinking 
over many years. 


5.1 CRITICAL REALISM 

The idea that science succeeds in giving an increasingly veri- 
similitudinous account of what the physical world is like, is the 
fundamental belief, tacit or acknowledged, of virtually all its 
practitioners. It is not a belief uncontested by philosophers, 
for science is subtle and its method is not without a degree of 


78 


SECOND THOUGHTS 

intellectual precariousness . 1 Hence the belief is usually called 
‘critical realism’, the modifying adjective being required as a 
recognition that scientific understanding is not just read out 
of nature but it is attained through a creative interpretative 
process. Scientist-theologians, like Ian Barbour, Arthur Pea- 
cocke, and myself, are subscribers to this belief and they find 
in it a basis for a cousinly relationship with theology as the 
latter pursues its own yet more subtle and precarious search 
for an understanding of the divine Reality . 2 

We have seen that one of the main defences of a critical 
realist position in science is based on an appeal to the actual 
history of scientific discovery. Although our ideas about the 
nature of the physical world certainly change, it is claimed that 
they do so in a way that suggests the attainment of an ever 
more accurate knowledge of a rich and many-levelled reality. 
I expressed such a view when I wrote, 

Scientists are mapmakers of the physical world. No 
map tells us all that could be said about a particular 
terrain, but it can faithfully represent the structure 
present on a certain scale. In the sense of an increas- 
ing verisimilitude, of ever better approximations to the 
truth of the matter, science offers us a tightening grasp 
of physical reality . 3 

There are many branches of science whose history is readily 
interpretable along these lines. The successive steps in unrav- 


1. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge University Press, 
1996), ch. 2, for a summary of the issues. See also chapter 2 in this book. 

2. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Scientists as Theologians (SPCK, 1996), ch. 2. 

3. Polkinghorne, Beyond Science , 8. 


79 



ISSUES 


elling the structure of matter — from atoms to nuclei, on to 
protons and neutrons, and then to quarks and gluons — seem to 
exhibit just such an unfolding of levels as the scale of the phe- 
nomena considered becomes smaller and smaller. If the specu- 
lations of string theory eventually prove to be correct, so that 
the apparently point-like quarks are themselves just states of 
vibration of tiny one- dimensional loops many orders of mag- 
nitude smaller than currently can be investigated, this would 
simply constitute a further fine-graining of our knowledge of 
nature. 

Even the greatest revolution in the history of modern 
physics — the discovery of quantum theory— might be thought 
of as lending itself to this kind of developmental interpreta- 
tion. Microscopic quantum ‘fuzziness’ is on too small a scale to 
affect the large-scale maps of macroscopic phenomena. Cor- 
respondence principles enable us to understand Newtonian 
mechanics as being an excellent approximate account of the 
behaviour of systems whose action is large on the scale set by 
Planck’s famous constant. (One must acknowledge again that 
there are some unresolved perplexities about how the macro- 
scopic and the microscopic are related to each other, of which 
the celebrated measurement problem is the best known.) Simi- 
larly, it is the case that Newtonian ideas can also be assimi- 
lated to those of special relativity, despite the latter’s revised 
concepts of the nature of space, time, and simultaneity, be- 
cause they can be regarded as affording ‘maps’ that are valid for 
motions where velocities are small compared to the velocity 
of light. 

So far, so good, but the claim becomes more problematic 
when we turn from special relativity to general relativity, Ein- 
stein’s brilliant reformulation of the theory of gravity. New- 


80 



SECOND THOUGHTS 

ton’s ideas were based on action- at- a- distance according to 
the inverse square law of universal gravitation. Einstein recog- 
nised that the equality of inertial mass and gravitational mass 
(the principle of equivalence) implied that all bodies would 
move in the same way in a given gravitational field. The latter 
could, therefore, be reinterpreted as a property of spacetime 
itself, related to its curvature. Effectively, Einstein replaced 
gravitational physics by geometry, with the equations of gen- 
eral relativity expressing in a beautiful and concise way how 
matter curves space. This transition from action- at- a- distance 
to geometrisation might seem to constitute, with a vengeance, 
a discontinuity in scientific thinking and so to offer a serious 
threat to a blithe assertion of critical realist continuity. 

A related way of making a similar point could be framed 
in terms of a history of thought about the structure of the solar 
system. Over a two -thousand-year period, a guiding principle 
has been the search for mathematical elegance and simplicity 
in the description proposed. From Ptolemy to Copernicus, 
and including both, this principle was enshrined in the prime 
role assigned to the circle, regarded as the most perfect geo- 
metrical figure. This concept was threatened by Kepler’s dis- 
covery of elliptical planetary orbits, but a new kind of mathe- 
matical beauty emerged with Newton’s inverse square law, 
which yields the elegant consequence of equal gravitational 
flux through each enclosing sphere. Change came again with 
Einstein who discovered general relativity after an eight-year 
search for the most beautiful mathematical formulation of 
his physical ideas, now expressed in terms of the Riemannian 
geometry of curved space. Asingle guiding principle— mathe- 
matical beauty— had been found to have these three appar- 
ently quite different formulations and instantiations. 


81 



ISSUES 


Returning to gravitational physics proper, the question 
is further complicated by the still-unsolved problem of how 
to reconcile quantum theory and general relativity with each 
other. Various techniques have been tried (technically rang- 
ing from quantum field theories of gravitons through string 
theories to ‘sums over histories’ of spatial geometries) with- 
out consistency being achieved. Exactly how this reconcil- 
iation will eventually modify thinking about spatial structure 
on the scale of the Planck length (10 -33 cm.) is uncertain, 
but further revisions of a radical kind may readily be antici- 
pated. 

What are we to make of all this? Is gravitational theory 
the Achilles heel of critical realism, by which it can be mor- 
tally wounded? It would seem strange if this were so, given the 
wide range of other physical theories open to a progressive and 
developmental interpretation of their history. I believe that 
what will be found to be involved is not the abandonment of 
the critical realist thesis but its further sophistication. There 
is continuity of development, but it is located at a deeper level 
than is represented by those natural physical pictures that af- 
ford valuable, intuitively accessible ways of thinking about a 
theory (action- at- a- distance; field theory; curved space; etc.). 

What is being suggested can be made clearer by con- 
sidering two simple examples. The first is the figure of an 
ellipse. At one level this can be understood as arising through 
a number of different accounts of its origin, accounts that 
are not immediately obviously identical in their character : the 
curve traced out by a stick that makes taut a string attached to 
two fixed posts; the locus of points satisfying a certain simple 
equation in Cartesian geometry; the focus- directrix defini- 
tion; and so on. So what, then, is an ellipse? It is, of course, 


82 



SECOND THOUGHTS 

not so much any one of these particular specifications but the 
reconciling mathematical reality that underlies them all. 

The second example is drawn from the history of physics. 
In 1925, Heisenberg discovered a quantum theory expressed 
in terms of matrices related to properties of atomic tran- 
sitions. At almost the same time, Schrodinger discovered a 
quantum theory expressed in terms of the dynamical proper- 
ties of waves. At first, it was not at all clear that these two great 
discoveries were the same. It was only the deeper and more 
general ‘transformation theory’ of Dirac (who regarded this 
as his greatest discovery, even beyond his relativistic theory of 
the electron) which showed that there was only one quantum 
theory, capable of being articulated in a variety of forms. 

Inverse square law and curved space look very different 
from each other and so, no doubt, will the true theory of quan- 
tum theory of gravity look very different from both of them 
when eventually it is discovered. Yet, I believe that there is 
continuity at the deep structural level (as the Schwartzchild 
solution shows for general relativity, as it reproduces inverse 
square law consequences with certain very small — and empiri- 
cally successful— modifications). If this line of thinking is cor- 
rect— and, of course, it will need much more detailed work- 
ing out, not least in the light of further discoveries — then it 
has consequences for how we think about realism in science. 
As the trivial example of the ellipse suggests, the deep level at 
which verisimilitudinous development of understanding can 
be sought and identified is the fundamental structural level 
at which the mathematical notion of isomorphism operates 
(the same fundamental entity perceived under the cloak of a 
variety of descriptions). If this is a correct insight, it reinforces 
the claim that mathematics is indeed the natural language of 


83 



ISSUES 


physical science, the perfect medium for the expression of its 
insights . 4 5 

These considerations nudge me a little nearer to the views 
of my scientist-theologian colleagues, Barbour and Peacocked 
I have resisted the use of the concept of metaphor to describe 
scientific pictures of reality, for I do not see the creative ambi- 
guity which seems part of the essence of this literary trope, 
as being involved in scientific description . 6 I prefer the more 
modest term, model. I still retain that preference, but I now 
acknowledge more clearly the fact that even scientific theories 
of wide explanatory power, such as Newton’s and Einstein’s 
gravitational theories, have in them a significant element of 
modelling, at least in the way in which they express their in- 
sights in terms of everyday language. This is the feature that 
gives rise to the possibility of apparently discontinuous change 
at the ‘pictorial’ level of description. It is, therefore, at the 
more abstract level of mathematical characterisation that we 
should seek to establish, if possible, the degree of continuity 
that realist claims demand. Circles are approximations to el- 
lipses of small eccentricity. The inverse square law approxi- 
mates the effects of the geometry of the Schwartzchild solu- 
tion. Matrix mechanics and wave mechanics are recognised 
as being particular formulations of the general principles of 
quantum mechanics. Accounts of this kind offer the prospect 
of a continuing adherence to critical realism in the face of pic- 
torial discontinuity. 


4. J. C. Polkinghorne, One World (SPCK, 1986), 45-47. 

5. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , 22-23. 

6. J. C. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (SPCK 1991), ch. 2. 


84 



SECOND THOUGHTS 


5.2 QUANTUM COSMOLOGY 
AND THE ANTHROPIC PRINCIPLE 

The ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws of nature that is necessary if the 
physical fabric of the world is to be capable eventually of evolv- 
ing carbon-based life is an unanticipated insight first recog- 
nised by scientists in the early 1970s. There has been much dis- 
cussion of its possible metascientific significance. 7 John Leslie 
reached a judicious conclusion when he stated that these re- 
markable coincidences called for some form of further expla- 
nation, whose character could take one of two different ratio- 
nal forms: either there are many different universes, each with a 
different set of natural laws and circumstances, and we simply 
live in that one where, by chance, our evolution has in fact 
been a possibility, or there is a single universe whose endow- 
ment with fruitful potentiality is the expression of the will of 
the Creator who has brought it into being. 

If this analysis is accepted, as I think it should be, those 
who wish to avoid a religious conclusion will have to opt for 
the many-universes explanation. Their case would then be 
strengthened if they were able to adduce further reasons for 
belief in this vast portfolio of other worlds. Otherwise, it will 
appear simply as an ad hoc stratagem of antireligious intent. 
(After all, theists can point to several other reasons for their 
belief in God, such as the existence of cosmic order and the 
evidence of religious experience.) 

One move in that direction stems from the recognition 
that the forces of nature that we observe today may well have 


7. J. D. Barrow and F. J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford 
University Press, 1986); J. Leslie, Universes (Routledge, 1989). 


85 



ISSUES 


resulted from the spontaneous breakdown of the high sym- 
metry that many believe was possessed by the Grand Unified 
Theory that held sway in the highly energetic first moments of 
cosmic history. This symmetry breaking need not have had a 
literally universal form, but there may well have been different 
cosmic domains in which it gave rise to different relationships 
between the forces effective at lower energies. Much of the 
anthropic discussion turns on the tight constraints that must 
be satisfied by these relationships (for example, between the 
intrinsic strengths of gravity and electromagnetism) in order 
for the evolution of carbon-based life to be a possibility. On 
this view, we simply live in that domain (greatly extended by 
the cosmic process of inflation) in which, by chance, things 
turned out ‘right’. 

In fact this argument, which may well be correct, only 
relaxes anthropic particularity to a modest degree. It would 
still be necessary that the initial Grand Unified Theory had 
the right form, both to break down to the kind of forces that 
we observe today and also to generate an inflationary era in 
very early cosmic history. In addition, the laws of quantum 
mechanics, which are anthropically indispensable to give the 
a balance between stability and openness, but which are by no 
means logically necessitated, would also have to be treated as 
given. Much would remain that is significantly special about 
the physical world within which we live and which had enabled 
it to to become our home. 

It is important, therefore, to consider whether quantum 
cosmology might afford further help to the non-theist in the 
task of motivating belief in the existence of a vast variety of 
different universes. After all, the talk of these bold specula- 
tors seems full of reference to worlds bubbling up out of the 


86 



SECOND THOUGHTS 

quantum vacuum through the process of the inflationary ex- 
pansion of small fluctuations. Details vary with the speaker 
and, in the absence of a consistent theory of quantum gravity, 
all such theorising is speculative and uncertain to a high de- 
gree. Yet it is not altogether inconceivable that something like 
these hypothesised scenarios might be a physical possibility. 

The first comment to make is that any talk of quantum 
cosmology already assumes as its unexplained given the exis- 
tence of quantum mechanics and of gravity, which are both 
anthropically necessary but which are by no means logically 
necessary properties of all possible worlds. Much, therefore, 
of anthropic significance has already been taken for granted 
before the discussion even begins. Second, the scenarios sug- 
gested are possible because the quantum vacuum is itself an 
active and structured entity. Its nature requires the specifica- 
tion of the quantum fields whose fluctuations are to constitute 
the alleged primeval chaos. In other words, just as in the case of 
the cosmic domain option already considered, the right Grand 
Unified Theory must be assumed as part of the given ground 
of explanation. A justly evaluated quantum cosmology, held 
within the bounds of bold but not altogether unmotivated sci- 
entific conjecture, in my opinion carries us little further than 
the better supported ideas of cosmic domains, as far as an- 
thropic coincidences are concerned. 

The appeal to quantum cosmology to avoid a theistic 
turn in anthropic argument has often seemed to depend upon 
conscious or unconscious abuse of language. ‘Many-worlds’ is 
an evocative phrase but its sober scientific use does not extend 
to licensing the idea of a readily realisable variety in the basic 
forms of physical law (different Grand Unified Theories). In 
particular, this is true of many-worlds quantum theory. Even if 


87 



ISSUES 


this interpretation of quantum mechanics were correct (which 
I personally do not believe to be the case), it simply supposes 
the existence of parallel universes in which there are different 
outcomes of quantum measurement events, and not different 
fundamental laws of nature. 

Speculations that go beyond these limits should be clearly 
identified as being metascientific through and through, going 
beyond what can be supported by scientific knowledge or sci- 
entifically motivated conjecture. An example of this genre 
would be Lee Smolin’s suggestion 8 that black holes spawn 
from within themselves new universes whose laws are slightly 
different from the laws of the universe containing their parent. 
This is an ingenious attempt to employ Darwinian explana- 
tion, so often the recourse of the reductionist, to the question 
of anthropic coincidences. Of course, there is no purely sci- 
entific motivation for the notion that the laws of nature would 
be subject to small variations in this way. The assumption is ad 
hoc and it is introduced solely to make a tendentious analogy 
with genetics. It is also alleged that there is a connection be- 
tween anthropic properties and those properties that are nec- 
essary to make a universe black hole-rich. The idea then is 
that, because black holes spawn the ‘next generation’ of uni- 
verses, there is a kind of supercosmic evolutionary competi- 
tion in which the superior reproductive power of black hole- 
rich universes makes them ‘fittest’ in the struggle and so, by an 
extraordinary chance, at the same time the likelihood of the 
generation of anthropic universes is enhanced. In actual fact, 
there is considerable scientific doubt about the claim of a cor- 
relation between those properties that encourage the genera- 


8. L. Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1997). 



SECOND THOUGHTS 


tion of black holes and the fine-tuning necessary for carbon- 
based life 9 (which, if true, would itself be rather a remarkable 
coincidence). 

Metaphysical stratagems of this kind have a certain air 
of desperation about them. The creation option has about it 
less sense of strain and better collateral support. It does not 
constitute a knockdown argument for theism but it should put 
that possibility on the agenda of any serious enquirer into such 
matters. 


5.3 PANENTHEISM 

Classical theism, the kind associated with the grand tradition 
that runs from Augustine through Aquinas and on to the Re- 
formers and their followers, placed considerable emphasis on 
divine transcendence, with the concomitant assertion of a di- 
vine impassibility, invulnerable to the effects of the actions of 
creatures. However venerable this account may be, it is hard 
to reconcile its detached and distant deity with Christianity’s 
fundamental belief that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). Yet, for cen- 
turies the only alternative seemed to be pantheism, the theo- 
logically unacceptable equation of the Creator with creation. 
The trouble with this option is that it places total emphasis on 
absolute divine immanence, running counter to the reality of 
the numinous encounter with the divine Other and involving 
God too closely with the history of the world for there to be 
a credible divine Ground of hope, and Source of judgement, 
lying behind and beyond unfolding creaturely process. 

Much theological thinking of the twentieth century has 

9. See M. Rees, Before the Beginning (Simon and Schuster, 1997), 259-264. 


89 



ISSUES 


acknowledged the unsatisfactoriness of both of these extremes 
and it has sought instead to find a middle ground between 
them. A balance is needed between transcendence and im- 
manence. One popular way of attempting to achieve this end 
has been what is called panentheism, to be distinguished from 
pantheism by its belief that ‘the Being of God includes and 
penetrates the whole universe, so that every part exists in Him 
but (as against pantheism) that his Being is more than, and is 
not exhausted by, the universe’. 10 Although this is a frequently 
quoted definition, it is by no means as transparent as one might 
wish and its meaning has been the subject of some dispute. To 
say that the being of God ‘includes’ the whole universe ap- 
pears to imply that the cosmos is part of God, but this is quali- 
fied to an uncertain degree by the parallel word ‘penetrates’. 
Further ambiguity is introduced when a comparison is made 
between the statement that the universe is ‘in God’ (cf. Acts 
17:28), which need not carry a meaning beyond ‘in the pres- 
ence of’, and the statement that the world does not ‘exhaust’ 
God’s Being, which seems to imply that the cosmos is part of, 
but not the whole of, that Being. 

My fellow scientist-theologians, Barbour and Peacocke, 
are happy to identify themselves as panentheists n , but I have 
consistently declined to use that term to describe the Creator’s 
present relationship to creation. I do, however, acknowledge 
that the ultimate destiny of creation, prefigured in the the res- 
urrection of Christ, understood as the seed from which God’s 
new creation has begun to grow through the redeeming trans- 
formation of the old creation, will indeed be a state in which 

10. See A. R. Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, (SCM Press, enlarged 
edition 1993), 371, quoting from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 

11. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , 32-33. 


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SECOND THOUGHTS 


God is ‘all in all’ (i Cor. 15:28), so I believe that panentheism 
will prove to be an eschatological reality. 12 

Discussion of these matters is made difficult by the deli- 
cacy of the task and the consequent difficulty of finding lan- 
guage adequate to express the necessary nuances. All engaged 
in the matter, whether panentheists or not, wish to redress 
classical theism’s unbalanced emphasis on divine transcen- 
dence and divine invulnerability by reasserting the divine im- 
manent presence to creation and a divine openness to sharing 
in creation’s travail. Equally, none of us wishes to embrace a 
pantheistic equation of God and the world. 

Some reconsideration of these issues is timely because of 
the publication of a careful and extensive defence of the pan- 
entheistic position by the philosopher of religion, Philip Clay- 
ton. 13 As with all panentheists, he is careful to try to main- 
tain a distinction between Creator and creation for ‘within the 
overarching divine presence, and even (in one sense) within 
the divine being itself, we remain God’s created product, the 
work of his hands’. 14 This distinction is to be preserved by due 
recognition of such dichotomies as Infinite/finite and Nec- 
essary/contingent, which separate divine nature from cre- 
ated nature. Despite the clarity of Clayton’s style, there 
nevertheless remain the tantalising ambiguities that seem to 
plague panentheistic discussion. The recurring appearance of 
a phrase like ‘in a sense’, and the uncertain import of a state- 
ment like ‘we are composed, metaphorically speaking at least, 


12. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief /The Faith of a Physicist 
(SPCK 1984/Princeton University Press, 1984), 168. 

13. P. Clayton, God and Contemporary Science (Edinburgh University Press, 
1997), especially ch. 4. 

14. Ibid., 90. 


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ISSUES 


out of God ,’ 15 make it hard to be sure exactly what is being as- 
serted. The problem of panentheistic arguments that fall short 
of outright assertion of divine embodiment in creation has 
always been to see how they represent an acceptable advance 
beyond classical theological thinking to which has been re- 
stored a due recognition of divine immanence. 

Clayton offers a number of arguments in favour of a 
panentheistic position. One relates to divine omnipresence, a 
property that all theists would want to assert. He states with 
apparent approval that Newton (who had in the Principia de- 
scribed absolute space as being the sensorium of God) recog- 
nised that ‘space must be understood also as an attribute of 
God, and hence as part of God ’. 16 My counter to that is to ap- 
peal to the distinction made by the Orthodox between God’s 
essence (the divine Being itself) and God’s energies (God’s 
interaction with creation). The latter are exercised within cre- 
ated space, and of course omnipresently, but that does not 
imply that space lies within the divine Being itself. It is per- 
fectly possible to conceive of God interacting with creatures 
ad extra in a most intimate and particular fashion (perhaps, 
even, through active information 17 ). 

A second argument relates to the nature of God’s abso- 
lute infinity: ‘it turns out to be impossible to conceive of God 
as fully infinite if he is limited by something outside himself ’. 18 
This seems to neglect the important insight about the kenotic 
nature of God’s creative act, which truly allows the other to 

15. Ibid., 102. 

1 6. Ibid., 89. 

17. J. C . Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 

r 99 8 ). ch - 3- 

18. Ibid., 99. 


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SECOND THOUGHTS 


be, as a gracious act of divine withdrawal and self-limitation. 
This qualification of absolute infinity is freely granted by the 
Creator and not exacted by the creature. Panentheism, in this 
mode of argument, is in danger of replacing classical the- 
ology’s unsatisfactory notion of God’s absolute power by an 
equally unsatisfactory notion of God’s absolute comprehen- 
siveness. 

A third argument relates to causality. Clayton conceives 
of God’s providential and sustaining relationship with cre- 
ation along the lines of what he calls the ‘panentheistic anal- 
ogy’, 19 exploiting a claimed comparison with human embodied 
experience. This might seem to amount to a discreetly diluted 
appeal to divine embodiment. There are other ways of avoid- 
ing unacceptable notions of fitful divine intervention by re- 
course to alternative analogies suggestive of continuous inter- 
action, without having to appeal to this highly dubious idea 
(see chapter 6). 

A fourth argument relates to the closeness of God’s re- 
lationship to creation. It is certainly true that ‘panentheism 
conceives of an ontologically closer relationship between God 
and humanity than has traditionally been asserted’, 20 but a 
strengthened conception of divine immanence is all that is 
really needed for this desirable end. This can be achieved with- 
out recourse to panentheism, by taking more seriously God’s 
presence to creation. 

Clayton appeals for support to the writings of one of the 
leading theologians of the second half of the twentieth cen- 
tury, Jurgen Moltmann. Because Moltmann is a creative theo- 


19. Ibid., 101. 

20. Ibid., 102. 


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ISSUES 


logical thinker, rather than a cool philosophical writer, there 
can be a number of opinions about exactly how panentheistic 
his thinking actually is. He has certainly powerfully expressed 
the idea of a kenosis involved in the divine act of creation. 
When discussing how God can bring into being an ‘external’ 
reality, he says ‘it is only the assumption of a self-limitation 
by God himself preceding his creation which can be recon- 
ciled with God’s divinity without contradiction ’. 21 Moltmann 
uses the kabbalistic notion of zimsum (a divine making way) 
to explore this concept. He can say that ‘God makes room for 
his creation by withdrawing his presence ,’ 22 but he can also 
say ‘if creation ad extra takes place in the space freed by God 
himself, then in this case the reality outside God still remains 
in the God who has yielded up that ‘outwards’ in himself ’. 23 
The matter is further complicated by the fact that Moltmann, 
one of the ‘theologians of hope’, is strongly eschatological in 
his thinking, locating ultimate significance in the fulfilment 
of God’s future. He speaks of ‘The movement from God’s 
initial self-limitation to his eschatological delimitation ’. 24 For 
Moltmann, the cross and the resurrection are the key to God’s 
nature and purpose: ‘In the path of the Son into self- emptying 
and bondage, to the point of the death he died, and in the path 
of his exaltation and glorification by the whole creation, God 
becomes omnipresent ’ 25 (my italics). I have already indicated 
my belief in an eschatological panentheism. 

I remain of the opinion that God’s caring relationship 


21. J. Moltmann, God in Creation (SCM Press, 1985), 86. 

22. Ibid., 87. 

23. Ibid., 88-89. 

24. Ibid., 89. 

25. Ibid., 91. 


94 



SECOND THOUGHTS 


with creation is best understood in terms of a divine imma- 
nent presence, hiddenly active in a universe which is allowed to 
be itself through the gracious act of God’s self-limited allow- 
ing of the existence given to this other. A useful phrase (for 
which I am indebted to Fraser Watts) is that creation is within 
the life of God, which carries with it overtones of the Ortho- 
dox concept of the active presence of divine energies. In my 
view, panentheistic language is best reserved to express escha- 
tological destiny rather than to describe present reality. 


5.4 DUAL ASPECT MONISM 

The classical metaphysical strategies of materialism, ideal- 
ism and Cartesian dualism all exhibit a bankruptcy in the 
face of the many-layered, and yet interconnected, character 
of our encounter with reality. This recognition encourages 
the search for some form of dual aspect monism, an account 
that would acknowledge the fundamental distinction between 
experience of the material and experience of the mental but 
which would neither impose on reality a sharp division into 
two unconnected kinds of substance nor deny the psycho- 
somatic unity of human beings. Stating this metaphysical as- 
piration is one thing; its attainment, even in a sketchy and 
conjectural form, is quite another. I have from time to time 
tentatively explored the suggestion that the notion of com- 
plementarity, derived by analogy from quantum theory but 
clearly being employed in a different context and so, neces- 
sarily, in a novel manner, might afford a way of thinking about 
these issues . 26 If that is the case, an analogy with quantum 

26. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation (SPCK1988), ch. 5; Reason , ch. 3; 
Belief /Faith, ch. 1; Belief in God , ch. 3. 


95 



ISSUES 


field theory (which perfectly resolves the apparent paradox of 
wave/particle duality) would suggest that the presence of a 
degree of indefiniteness in the scientific account of dynami- 
cal process might be an important ingredient in facilitating 
a subtle and supple metaphysics, by analogy with the way in 
which states with an indefinite number of particles can mani- 
fest wavelike properties. This idea has encouraged me in the 
realist strategy of interpreting the intrinsic unpredictabili- 
ties that are found in modern physics as signs of an open- 
ness of physical process to the future, so that what might have 
seemed to be unfortunate epistemological deficiencies are re- 
interpreted as fortunate ontological opportunities. 

One of the most promising developments that one may 
foresee lies in an increasingly insightful study of complex sys- 
tems. Previously the best that could be done to understand 
their behaviour was some sort of averaging procedure, such 
as that employed in statistical mechanics. The advent of high- 
speed computing has enabled much more detailed work to be 
done on specific models. At present, the subject of complexity 
theory is at the natural history stage of studying exemplary 
‘for instances’. The deeper general theory, of whose existence 
there are clear hints in surprising emergences of regularities 
and patterns of order, is currently unknown. 

Undoubtedly big discoveries lie ahead. It is already clear, 
from the role of strange attractors in chaos theory and from 
the spontaneous generation of long-range order in dissipative 
systems far from thermal equilibrium that, in addition to tra- 
ditional descriptions in terms of matter and energy, there is a 
need to introduce a third fundamental concept of a pattern- 
forming character that will embrace these emergent proper- 
ties of holistic order. Information might be a suitable word for 


96 



SECOND THOUGHTS 

it. It carries with it just a glimmer (no more) of the integra- 
tion of the material with something that begins to look a little 
like the mental. Just as relativity theory has integrated mat- 
ter and energy into a single account, so one might hope for 
an eventual discovery (at least as revolutionary as relativity, 
and most probably much more so) that would integrate the 
triad: matter-energy-information. That achievement would 
be a significant step in the search for a dual aspect monism. 

It would, however, be no more than a first move in a 
direction whose ultimate goal was still over the horizon. A 
much more important step would have been made if it were 
ever possible to attain an understanding in which conscious- 
ness was taken into an integrated account. Despite many over- 
confident reductionist claims to the contrary, consciousness 
is presently both an undeniable experience and also an irre- 
ducible mystery. Neuroscientists may utter slogans such as 
‘the mind is synaptic’, but the truth is that all their important 
and successful efforts to study neural pathways in the brain 
still leave us unable to bridge the gap that yawns between that 
kind of talk and the simplest mental experiences of seeing blue 
or feeling thirsty. 

If a dual aspect monism is on the right track, then there 
will be entities, such as stones, whose nature is located wholly 
at the material pole, and other entities, such as ourselves, who 
are ‘amphibians’, participating in both kinds of polar experi- 
ence. It would seem entirely reasonable to suppose that there 
are also entities whose nature is located wholly at the men- 
tal pole. (This could provide a metaphysical lodging place 
for created non-embodied spiritual beings, such as angels, 
if such there are.) There is another candidate for this end 
of the metaphysical spectrum, less controversial than angels, 


97 



ISSUES 


namely, the truths of mathematics. There is a widespread con- 
viction among mathematicians (which I share 27 ) that the pur- 
suit of their subject involves discovery and not mere construc- 
tion. Mathematical entities, such as the prime numbers and 
the Mandelbrot set, are ‘out there’ in some platonic world of 
mathematical ideas. Not only can a dual aspect monism ac- 
commodate such a belief but also this conviction of the mathe- 
maticians would point to an interesting aspect of such a meta- 
physics. 

The material world is a world of process, characterised 
by temporality and becoming. Theologically this means, as 
Augustine knew, that the physical universe was created cum 
tempore, with time itself a created entity (a point of view fully 
compatible with modern relativity theory’s integration of 
space, time and matter). A noetic world containing the truths 
of mathematics would have a different character. It would be 
everlasting, in the sense that such truths just are and do not 
evolve. We can think of such a world as being part of creation, 
but it has ‘always’ been in the rational Mind of God. It fol- 
lows then that, if these two worlds, material and noetic, are 
but complementary aspects of a larger created reality, then the 
duality involved in that wider picture is more than just that 
of material/mental; it must also embrace becoming/being and 
everlasting/temporal. Once again, humanity is the ‘great am- 
phibian’, participating in both poles of this complex reality. 
We are creatures of time, but we also have intuitions of a 
reality beyond change and flux. One sees that in the pursuit of 
a fully integrated metaphysics, the multiplicity of experience 
leads us to an account of considerable richness and subtlety. 


27. Polkinghorne, Belief in God, ch. 6. 


98 



SECOND THOUGHTS 


One final point remains. This discussion has been con- 
cerned with a tentative metaphysical account of created 
reality. The divine Reality has been outside the scope of our 
discussion. Yet it has been a repeated theme in much twenti- 
eth century theological thinking that, by an act of divine con- 
descension, the Creator has also embraced a duality of Being 
and becoming within the divine nature itself, so that the Eter- 
nal, who is beyond time, is also the God of history who acts 
within time . 28 


5.5 CHAOS THEORY 

This is not so much a case of second thoughts as of rath 
thoughts, for I have frequently written on this topic . 29 Partly 
that has been a process of clarifying my own thoughts and 
partly it has been a response to what seems to me to have been 
some persistent misunderstandings on the part of my critics. 
I want to indicate what I believe to be the fundamental points 
at issue between us. 

First, let me state the obvious fact that there is no entail- 
ment possible from physics to metaphysics, though there is a 
degree of constraint. Epistemology (in this case, unpredict- 
ability) does not determine ontology (in this case, the ques- 
tion of the nature of causal process). Metaphysical questions 
must receive metaphysical answers that are given for meta- 
physical reasons. I have repeatedly sought to explain the meta- 


28. See, for example, J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence (SPCK, 
1989), ch. 7. 

29. Cf. footnote 25 and J. C. Polkinghorne, ‘The Metaphysics of Divine 
Action’ in R. J. Russell, N. Murphy and A. R. Peacocke (eds.), Chaos and Complexity 
(Vatican Observatory, 1995), 147-156. 


99 



ISSUES 


physical motivations that lie behind my own position. What 
I wish to reassert is that, in making a metaphysical conjec- 
ture, I am acting no differently from anyone else who seeks to 
speak on questions of causality and agency. Some of my crit- 
ics seem to suppose that by invoking the admittedly widely 
held view that quantum measurement events are indetermi- 
nate in outcome, they are adopting a position of metaphysical 
privilege that dispenses them from the precariousness of con- 
jecture. Acquaintance with the philosophy of quantum theory 
soon disabuses one of this notion. All of us, without exception, 
have to make metaphysical guesses. I am certainly not against 
the exploration of a multitude of approaches to the difficult 
issue of agency. I simply want to argue for a fair account of 
what is involved in arguing for any of these approaches. 

Second, chaos theory identifies the existence of exqui- 
sitely sensitive systems whose future behaviour is intrinsically 
unpredictable. This is the epistemological base from which all 
of us must start who wish to explore the possibilities offered 
to metaphysics by this unexpected physical behaviour. To de- 
scribe chaos theory as concerned with ‘non-linear dynamics’, 
whose equations are to be solved in a space of integrable (well- 
behaved) functions , 30 is already to have opted for a particular 
metaphysical interpretation of the nature of such systems. If that 
description is accepted, then we do indeed have ‘determinis- 
tic chaos’, so that we would be concerned with unavoidable 
ignorance and not with an openness of process to the future. 
It is not, however, in any logical sense a necessity to adopt 
this point of view. I have repeatedly emphasised that there is 
the alternative of interpreting the non-linear equations, whose 


30. See I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty (Free Press, 1997). 


100 



SECOND THOUGHTS 

computer-generated solutions led to the discovery of chaos, 
as approximations, in the limit case of separability, to a more 
subtle, supple and holistic account of physical reality. 

Third and finally, let me stress once more the holistic char- 
acter of top-down active information. It is a complete misrep- 
resentation of my ideas to suggest that they imply that agency 
arises from the local manipulation of either boundary condi- 
tions or microscopic processes, either by humans or by God. 


101 




Part II 


DIVINE AGENCY 




CHAPTER SIX 


God in Relation to Nature: 
Kenotic Creation and Divine Action 



hatever it may mean to say that 
God is personal, such language 
must surely imply that God is ac- 
tive, doing particular things on 
particular occasions and not just 
functioning as an unchanging ef- 
fect like the law of gravity. In re- 
cent years, the intellectual conversation between science and 
theology has moved from natural theology’s appeal to God as 
the ground of order and fruitfulness, to a more central the- 
istic concern with the God of providence. On the one hand, 
we have science’s account of the regularity of the processes of 
nature. On the other hand, we have Christian theology’s claim 
to speak of the God who acts in history. Can the two be rec- 
onciled with each other ? Achieving this end may require some 
flexibility from both science and theology in their assessments 
of the understandings that they bring to the dialogue. 

The philosopher of history and historian of ideas, R. G. 


105 


DIVINE AGENCY 


Collingwood, in his posthumously published book, The Idea of 
Nature , 1 proposed the thesis that there have been three eras in 
reflective thinking about the nature of the world, correspond- 
ing respectively to: (i) the ancient Greeks and their medi- 
eval intellectual successors; (ii) the Renaissance period and 
the birth of modern science; (iii) the modern period of the 
past two hundred years. In the first era, nature was thought of 
on the model of an organism. Greek natural science, Colling- 
wood tells us, ‘was based on the principle that the world of 
nature is saturated or permeated by mind ’. 2 Its ceaseless mo- 
tion arises from its being alive. In the second era, nature was 
thought of on the model of a machine. The physical world 
was considered to be clockwork so that, in the thought of 
Descartes, even animals were treated as being merely intri- 
cate robots. The only exception to this rule was the inten- 
tional acts willed by human minds or by disembodied spirits. 
Notoriously, Cartesian metaphysics proved impotent to inte- 
grate, in a satisfactory manner, mental acts with the motion 
of extended matter. Collingwood believed that what distin- 
guished the modern era from its two predecessors was the rec- 
ognition of the role of history. Thus unfolding process, par- 
ticularly evolutionary process, is the fundamental model in its 
thinking about nature. 

Such tidy schemes can be produced only by a somewhat 
coarse-grained account that does not worry much about con- 
trary details. More refined analysis will reveal the ebb and 
flow of currents and counter-currents of opinion . 3 Never- 


1. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford University Press, 1945). 

2. Ibid., 3. 

3. See C. Kaiser, Creation and the History of Science (Marshall Pickering, 1991) 
for a more complex account. 


106 



GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 

theless, Collingwood’s broad-brush classification provides a 
useful framework for metaphysical thinking. Nature may be 
considered either as being in some sense alive, or as being me- 
chanical, or as an unfolding process bringing emergent nov- 
elty into being. 

Just as physics does not determine metaphysics, though 
it certainly constrains it, so metaphysics in its turn does not 
determine theology, though it certainly constrains the kind of 
theological thinking that will seem congenial and convincing. 
Each of Collingwood’s three options has associated with it a 
particular way of conceiving of God and of God’s relationship 
to nature. 

If the world were an organism, then it would be natural to 
think of God in terms of the World Soul. Divine action with 
respect to the universe might then be expected to be analogous 
to our human action within our bodies. A few contemporary 
theologians, such as Grace Jantzen , 4 explicitly defend the idea 
of divine embodiment in the world. In addition, the idea of 
nature as an organism is a commonplace of much New Age 
thinking, usually expressed in the parochial terms of terrestrial 
Gaia rather than those of a truly cosmic Ouranos. 

Scientifically, such ideas founder because, however inte- 
grated Earth’s ecosystem may or may not prove to be, the uni- 
verse itself is too disseminated an entity to be described con- 
vincingly in organic terms. It does not possess anything like 
the elaborate degree of causal inter-relationships that charac- 
terises the parts of an organism. 

Metaphysically, such ideas founder because, if they are 
not to amount to a simple pantheistic equation of nature and 

4. G. Jantzen, God’s World , God’s Body (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984). 


107 



DIVINE AGENCY 


God, their implementation requires reliance on the dubious 
dualistic notion of a distinct separation between the soul (mir- 
roring God) and the body (mirroring the universe). 

Theologically, such ideas founder because they bind God 
too closely to creation, making divine existence coextensive 
with that of the universe, so that it is presumably finite in the 
past (beginning with the big bang) and, perhaps, finite in the 
future also (ending with the big crunch). God would then die 
with the death of the cosmos. So total a degree of divine im- 
manence is theologically unacceptable, for it would imply that 
God is in thrall to the history of the universe. 

The concept could, however, be modified in a number of 
ways. Panentheism retains the ghost of divine embodiment in 
its belief that ‘the Being of God includes and penetrates the 
whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him but (as 
against pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not ex- 
hausted by, the universe’. 5 Arthur Peacocke denies that this 
implies that the world is in some sense a part of God, 6 but 
doubts must linger about whether this particular way of seek- 
ing to maintain a balance between divine transcendence and 
divine immanence can succeed in the delicate feat of avoid- 
ing such a conclusion. Certainly the doyen of panentheists, 
Charles Hartshorne, said that God ‘is both the system [the 
universe] and something independent of it’ 7 (see also, chap- 
ter 5.3). 

The highly speculative and uncertain ideas of quantum 

5. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; quoted with approval by 
A. R. Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (SCM Press, 1993), 371. 

6. Peacocke, ibid. 

7. C. Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (Yale University Press, 1948), 90. 


108 



GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


cosmology 8 could provide a way of rescuing such a God from 
sharing the fate of our observable universe. According to some 
theories, this world is just one among infinitely many that 
bubble up out of a universal and truly active medium, the vac- 
uum state of quantum gravity. Each individual world rises and 
falls, but the process itself continues ceaselessly ‘for ever’. If 
there is room for a God in such speculations, it might seem to 
lie in a pantheistic identification of the divine with the quan- 
tum vacuum itself, an idea of extreme theological etiolation. 

If the world were a mechanism, then it would be natu- 
ral to think of God as the Celestial Engineer. Divine action 
would be limited to the initial construction, and the subse- 
quent maintenance in existence, of the cosmic machine. Per- 
haps there might also be a need for occasional interventions 
to correct faulty workings, were they to occur. This is the 
kind of view that Isaac Newton seems to have held, at least 
about the non-human universe, believing that tendencies to 
instabilities in the solar system would require divine attention 
every fifty thousand years or so if the system’s integrity were 
to be maintained. Newton was deeply impressed by the beau- 
tiful and orderly construction of the celestial machine, claim- 
ing that this demonstrated that there must be divine Intelli- 
gence behind its contrivance. However, such an interpretation 
proved not to provide lasting intellectual satisfaction. Leibniz 
was quick to point out that a machine that required periodic 
attention to keep it going fell short of the perfection expected 
of divine handiwork. Worse still, once God had been reduced 


8. See R. J. Russell, N. Murphy and C. J. Isham (eds.), Quantum Cosmology 
and the Laws of Nature (Vatican Observatory, 1993). 


109 



DIVINE AGENCY 


to being just a clockmaker, the apparent self-sufficiency of the 
machine threatened to make otiose even that deistic role. This 
was to lead later in the eighteenth century to the atheistic 
proclamation of the properties of matter as being the sole and 
sufficient ground of explanation. In many minds, God seemed 
to have been made redundant. 

Scientifically, such ideas founder on the twentieth- 
century discoveries of quantum theory and chaos theory. The 
widespread intrinsic unpredictabilities that these theories en- 
tail show that the physical world is not simply mechanical, in 
the sense of being predictable and controllable, but it is some- 
thing subtler, and perhaps suppler, than that. 

Metaphysically, such ideas founder on their inability, in 
any convincing way, to accommodate mental activity within 
their account of reality. We should not so readily abandon the 
attempt to take seriously that realm of experience which, in 
actual fact, is the ground of all our perception and knowledge. 

Theologically, such ideas founder not only because the 
God of deism is inadequate to account for the Christian intu- 
itions of prayer and providence but also because, as we have 
seen, God has so little to do that, for many, a thorough- going 
atheism eventually appears to be a more economical proposi- 
tion. At best, the question of divine existence is left open, its 
answer laden with so little consequence that it becomes almost 
a matter of indifference what that answer might prove to be. 

If the world is an evolving process still in via , then God 
may be expected to be in interactive relationship with its un- 
folding history. There is no need, however, for the Creator 
to be a Cosmic Tyrant, in total control of all that is happen- 
ing. Indeed, the play of creation, as we perceive it, has more 
the appearance of an improvisation than the appearance of the 


no 



GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


performance of a predetermined script. Recall that one of the 
immediate Christian responses to the publication in 1859 of 
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was Charles Kingsley’s rec- 
ognition that the Creator was no longer to be thought of as the 
originator of a ready-made world but as the giver of a creation 
‘allowed to make itself’. In twentieth- century theology, this 
idea has been developed to the point of acknowledging that 
there is a divine kenosis involved in the act of creation. The 
Creator self-limits divine power in allowing the created- other 
to be truly itself, in its God-given freedom of being. Such a 
degree of setting aside of total divine control is perceived to be 
fitting for the God whose character is love and whose nature 
would be incompatible with the exercise of a cosmic tyranny. 
A kenotic account of creation is of great significance in the- 
odicy’s attempt to wrestle with the perplexities posed by the 
evil and suffering so clearly and painfully present in the world. 
If it is the case that not every event is brought about by a di- 
rect exercise of divine power, then not everything that hap- 
pens can be expected to accord with God’s benevolent will. 
Just as the human exercise of free will can lead either to the 
deeds of a Mother Teresa or to the deeds of a Stalin, so nature 
allowed to make itself will be a world in which death is the 
necessary cost of new life, the possibility of genetic mutations 
producing new species cannot be divorced from the possibility 
of genetic mutations producing malignancy, rain for crops and 
destructive storm winds will both form part of the way the 
weather turns out to be. Among theologians who have particu- 
larly developed this theme has been Jurgen Moltmann 9 (em- 

9. J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (SCM Press, 1981), ch. 4; 
God in Creation (SCM Press, 1985), ch. 4. 


Ill 



DIVINE AGENCY 


ploying the kabbalistic notion of zimsum , a divine ontological 
making-room for the existence of another) and W. H. Van- 
stone 10 (based on a meditative consideration of the necessary 
precariousness involved in any loving act of creativity and on 
a recognition of the value conferred by such an act). Scien- 
tifically, such ideas draw support from two kinds of discovery 
that have been made in the past two centuries. 

The first set relates to an increasing acknowledgement of 
the role of historical process in the formation of the physical 
world as we observe it today: successively the discovery, in the 
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of the geologi- 
cal history of the Earth; the recognition, in the late nineteenth 
century, of the evolving biological history of life on Earth; the 
discovery, somewhat reluctantly arrived at in the early twen- 
tieth century, that the universe itself has had a history, stem- 
ming from the big bang. 

The second set is the discovery of intrinsic unpredict- 
abilities, of the kind already referred to, in the behaviour of 
both quantum mechanical and classical physical systems. If 
these phenomena are to be understood as signs of the openness 
of the future to the emergence of true novelty, then their un- 
predictabilities will have to be interpreted, not just as episte- 
mological defects, limiting our ability to know in detail what is 
going to happen, but as ontological opportunities, permitting 
the operation of additional causal principles, over and above 
the energetic transactions that physics describes. 

In the case of quantum theory, such a strategy has been 


io. W. H. Vanstone, Love ’s Endeavour, Love ’ s Expense (Darton, Longman and 
Todd, 1977). 


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GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


almost universally adopted, so that, in the minds of most physi- 
cists, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has become a prin- 
ciple of indeterminacy. The additional causal principle held to 
be operating in this case is then usually considered to be pure 
randomness, so that the outcomes of indeterminate quantum 
measurements are said to occur simply ‘by chance’. 

In the case of chaos theory, this ontological option has 
been far less popular, though it has been defended by some 
people, including the present writer . 11 What the correspond- 
ing additional causal principles might be will be discussed 
shortly. The philosophical case for treating quantum theory 
and chaos theory similarly in this respect derives from the fact 
that what would then be involved for either theory would be 
an alignment of epistemology (knowledge of future behaviour 
limited by intrinsic unpredictability) and ontology (the claim 
of a corresponding causal openness) as closely as possible with 
each other. This strategy would accord well with the realist 
stance adopted, consciously or unconsciously, by scientists in 
relation to the significance of their work. Contrary to Kant, 
they do not divorce phenomena (known appearance) from nou- 
mena (the real nature of things). Unless one were learning, 
by means of science’s intricate and artificially contrived ex- 
perimental procedures, what the world is really like, the whole 
enterprise would not seem worth the time, talent and treasure 
spent upon it. A critical realist interpretation of this kind is 
not logically necessary, either for quantum theory or for chaos 


ii. I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty (Free Press, 1996); for a recent sum- 
mary of my thinking, see J. C. Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (Yale 
University Press, 1998), ch. 3. 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


theory, but it is needed to sustain the scientific endeavour and, 
I would claim, to explain its success. 12 

Metaphysically, such ideas draw their support from the 
consideration that an extension of causal principles beyond 
the energetic exchanges described by a reductionist physics, 
might offer the glimmer of the possibility of accommodat- 
ing, within this enhanced understanding, a genuinely instru- 
mental role for mind, active in the execution of human inten- 
tions. Whether this hope has any grounds is a question that 
we looked at briefly in chapter 5.4. 

Theologically, such ideas draw support from the related 
consideration that a physical world found to be sufficiently 
supple in its process to accommodate human agency, might 
also be expected to display an analogous ability to be open 
to divine providential action. Although the possibility of this 
prospect has certain obvious attractions for the theologian, 
it also represents embarking on a line of argument that runs 
counter to much traditional theological thinking. Its frank ap- 
peal to an analogy between human and divine agency might 
seem to lead to the danger of assimilating the Creator to crea- 
tures, an elision that the classical Judaeo-Christian-Islamic 
tradition has always strenuously resisted, believing that God 
must remain God, in all the uniqueness and ineffability of 
deity. 

A further danger might be feared to lie in the appeal 
being made to twentieth- century science. Dean Inge warned 
us that he who marries the spirit of the age will soon find him- 
self a widower. The history of science is full of revisions — of 


12. For a summary, see J. C. Polkinghorne, Scientists as Theologians (SPCK, 
1996) ch. 2. See also the discussion in chapter 2 of this volume. 


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GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 

revolutions, even, if we were to credit the account of Thomas 
Kuhn . 13 In any case, are we to suppose that, before the dis- 
coveries of quantum theory and chaos theory, an honest theo- 
logian was impotent to talk convincingly of God’s action in the 
world? That is certainly not how the record of theological tra- 
dition actually reads. Many of its most influential figures used 
an altogether different metaphysical strategy for their discus- 
sion of providence. 

Classical Christian theology from Augustine onwards, 
and most powerfully expressed in the writings of Aquinas, 
sought to preserve the uniqueness of divine action by speak- 
ing of God’s primary causality, exercised in and under the 
manifold secondary causalities of creatures. No explanation 
was given of how this happens; it was simply said to be the 
case. Any attempt to exhibit the ‘causal joint’ by which the 
double agency of divine and creaturely causalities related to 
each other was held to be impossible, or even impious. Three 
assertions were important consequences of this point of view. 

The first was that the ineffability of the mode of action of 
this primary causality had the effect of totally repudiating any 
possibility of an analogy between human and divine agencies. 

A second assertion was that God is fully party to every 
event, not simply by allowing it to happen by divine permis- 
sion as the creation is held in being, but in bringing it about 
through the exercise of divine will. Nothing is outside di- 
rect divine control, an assertion that poses obvious problems 
for theodicy, which can only match the veiled and mysterious 
character of primary causality with the veiled and mysterious 

13. T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago 
Press, 1970). 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


claim that in the end all will be found to have been for the best. 
Ofelix culpa! is to be written over all of human, terrestrial and 
cosmic history. 

The third assertion was that primary causality is so di- 
vorced in character from secondary causality that it may be 
held to be active whatever form the latter is believed by sci- 
ence to take. Theology is made invulnerable to whatever may 
currently be claimed about the process of the physical world. 
It seems that this feature has had a particular attraction for 
twentieth- century defenders of primary causality, such as 
Austin Farrer . 14 However, some of us feel that the deep obscu- 
rity involved in the idea of a double agency, operating simul- 
taneously through both primary causality and secondary caus- 
alities, carries with it the danger that the discussion might turn 
out to be no more than double talk. 

What, for its partisans, is the strength of the idea of pri- 
mary and secondary causality is, for its critics, its greatest 
weakness. The strategy represents an extreme case of a ‘two- 
languages’ approach to understanding how theology and sci- 
ence relate to each other. Their discussions are treated as in- 
dependent, so that they talk past each other at different levels 
of discourse. The two disciplines might then be considered 
as presenting two different paradigms or involving partici- 
pation in two different language games. This is a point of 
view that is rightly emphatically rejected by many who work 
at the interface between science and theology, and particu- 
larly by such scientist-theologians as Barbour, Peacocke and 
myself . 15 In its place, we wish to assert that the unity of knowl- 


14. A. Farrer, Faith and Speculation (A&C Black, 1967). 

15. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , ch. 1. 


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GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 

edge and truth— a unity ultimately guaranteed by the oneness 
of the Creator— means that there is active intercourse across 
the boundary between the two disciplines, of a kind variously 
characterised as aiming at consonance, dialogue, integration, 
or assimilation. In our view, creation is not so distanced from 
its Creator that the character of its history and process affords 
no clue to the nature of God’s interaction with it. 

Those who adopt this latter stance then have to explain 
how they are to understand and cope with the changes that 
occur in scientific understanding and how these might relate 
to theology. Broadly speaking, the answer will be the same 
beyond science as it is within it. The clue lies in the recog- 
nition both of the limited and provisional character of cur- 
rent knowledge and also of the persistence of some well-tested 
forms of insight beyond the era of their discovery. Contem- 
porary science is always incomplete but it is also the platform 
from which the continuing search for a fuller and more secure 
understanding can be launched. At any given time, current sci- 
ence will include some elements that will prove long-lasting 
and some in need of correction. There will also be some phe- 
nomena that are known to occur but whose nature is still be- 
yond the reach of current theory. In other words, science is 
both precarious and successful, requiring a humble assessment 
of its achievements but yielding lasting insights and rewarding 
boldness in their further exploitation and extension. 

Galileo provides an example of what I mean. He began to 
develop a recognisably modern and successful concept of in- 
ertia in order to explain how the Earth could be rotating on its 
axis and encircling the Sun, without our being aware of this in 
terms of obvious terrestrial phenomena (such as would have 
been the case if we had been left behind!). This was an im- 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


mensely important insight of lasting validity. At the same time, 
he believed that these ideas could also be used to explain the 
action of the tides and he repudiated Kepler’s suggestion that 
the Moon might play an important role in this phenomenon. 
In this respect, Galileo was mistaken, as soon became appar- 
ent. Neither he nor Kepler could make quantitative progress 
in understanding the details of tidal behaviour. That required 
Newton’s great discovery of the existence of universal gravity 
and the precise form that it took. Yet Newton, as he said, 
‘stood on the shoulders of giants’ and his theory of motion 
built on the insights of Galileo. This story of partial and pro- 
visional success leading on to further advance, is characteristic 
of the way that science progresses, bit by bit. Some of its ideas 
will prove transient but some of them will prove enduring. 

Many phenomena have become known to science well 
before a theoretical framework was in place for understand- 
ing them. At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists 
could not reconcile the temperature of the Earth, or the con- 
tinued shining of the Sun, with the long periods of time over 
which the evolutionary biologists asserted that these phe- 
nomena must have been sustained. Radioactivity (which gen- 
erates heat within the Earth) and nuclear reactions (which fuel 
the Sun) were then unknown and unsuspected. Lord Kelvin 
was rash enough to claim that the physicists’ inability to com- 
prehend these long-lasting phenomena must mean that the bi- 
ologists were mistaken. The error, however, was Kelvin’s and 
it derived from his overconfidence about the completeness of 
nineteenth- century physics. Later, many properties of matter 
and of radiation became known which remained unintelligible 
until the discovery of quantum theory shed light on the pro- 
cesses that lay behind them. 


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GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 

Almost all scientists believe the progress of science to be 
a convergence onto an increasingly verisimilitudinous under- 
standing of the nature of the physical world. We are its map- 
makers and sometimes we have radically to revise our views 
(that patch of apparent Newtonian terra firma turns out to 
be a quantum swamp). Yet overall, accuracy improves with 
each major discovery. Scientific progress is not made either by 
denying the existence of phenomena that we currently can- 
not understand or by exaggerating (as the elderly Kelvin did) 
the scope of what we have currently achieved. Persistence and 
openness in investigation, and a degree of realistically humble 
assessment of present attainment, are indispensable virtues in 
the pursuit of science. 

This edifying conclusion is of wider application than just 
within science alone. It certainly bears extension to theology 
and to the interaction between theology and science. If we do 
not display a certain degree of intellectual daring, no progress 
will be made. If we do not display a certain degree of intellec- 
tual humility, misleading and untenable claims will be made. If 
we are not content to live with the acknowledgement that there 
are phenomena that are beyond our contemporary powers of 
explanation, we shall have a truncated and inadequate grasp of 
reality. 

Human agency, and divine providential agency, both 
clearly fall into the category of experience that is presently 
beyond our capacity for full understanding. As persons, we 
should not deny our basic experience of free choice and con- 
sequent moral responsibility. Nor should we deny our experi- 
ences of prayer and intimations of providence. As Christians, 
we should hold fast to our intuition, and the testimony of our 
tradition, that God acts in the world. As rational thinkers con- 


119 



DIVINE AGENCY 


vinced of the unity of knowledge, we should not forgo the at- 
tempt, however modest and tentative it must necessarily be, to 
see whether a metaphysical conjecture, based on an ontologi- 
cal interpretation of the intrinsic unpredictabilities of physi- 
cal process, might not afford us some insight into questions of 
agency. That is the task to which we must now return. 

One of the first attempts of this kind was made by William 
Pollard , 16 who looked to the uncertainties of quantum events 
to provide some room for providential manoeuvre. The idea 
has been revived by a number of writers 17 but this approach 
encounters some difficulties. One is that quantum events take 
place in the atomic realm of the very small and the resulting 
uncertainties tend to cancel each other out when a very large 
number of such events are combined to describe the behaviour 
of a lump of matter of a size sufficient to be relevant to what 
is happening on a humanly perceptible and significant scale. 
Another problem is that quantum uncertainties relate only to 
those particular kinds of events that we call measurements, by 
which is meant irreversible macroscopic registration of a state 
of affairs, and not simply conscious observation. By its nature, 
measurement only occurs from time to time, so that agency 
exercised in this way would have a curiously sporadic char- 
acter. Finally, we may observe that if microscopic quantum 
events are to have macroscopic consequences, this can only 
be through an enhancement of their effect due to their being 
part of a much larger system which is extremely sensitive to 


1 6. W. G. Pollard, Chance and Providence (Faber & Faber, 1958). 

17. See R. J. Russell, N. Murphy and A. R. Peacocke (eds.), Chaos and Com- 
plexity (Vatican Observatory, 1995), articles by N. Murphy and T. F. Tracy; R. J. 
Russell, W. R. Stoeger and F. J. Ayala, Evolutionary and Molecular Biology (Vatican 
Observatory, 1999), article by R. J. Russell. 


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GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 

the fine details of its circumstance. Chaotic systems have this 
character (though it is necessary to add that currently there 
is a degree of perplexity about how to think correctly about 
the mutual relationship of microscopic quantum systems and 
macroscopic chaotic systems). For these reasons, the primary 
focus of our discussion will be on the possibilities offered di- 
rectly by chaotic unpredictabilities. 

We have seen that if these unpredictabilities are to be 
given an ontological interpretation, this will imply that addi- 
tional causal principles must be at work bringing about the 
future, over and above the effect of the energetic exchanges 
between constituents which conventional physics describes. 
Although there is currently no fully articulated theory of these 
extra causal principles, their general character is fairly clear. 

Study of complex systems has served to emphasise that 
our description of physical process must have a dual character, 
involving not only energy but also what one might call ‘pat- 
tern’. The future behaviour of a chaotic system is not totally 
haphazard. It displays a kind of orderly disorder. What will 
happen is confined within a large but restricted range of pos- 
sibilities that technically is called a ‘strange attractor’. This 
consists of a portfolio of possible future patterns of motion, 
all of the same energy but differing in the details of the way 
in which they unfold. There are a number of executive toys 
consisting of jointed rods and weights which, when released 
from apparently the same configuration, nevertheless exhibit 
a bewildering and unpredictable variety of subsequent mo- 
tions. Playing with one of these toys is just an exploration of 
its strange attractor. The openness that a chaotic system can 
be interpreted as possessing corresponds to the multiplicity of 
possibilities contained within this strange attractor, and any 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


one of the motions that is actually executed can be understood 
as corresponding to an expression of the information specify- 
ing its detailed structure (’this way, then that way, etc.’). 

The corresponding new causal principles can, therefore, 
be anticipated to complement energetic causality with a pat- 
tern-forming informational causality. This conjecture is re- 
inforced by considering other recent discoveries. Dissipative 
systems, maintained far from thermodynamic equilibrium by 
the input of energy from their environment, can manifest the 
spontaneous generation of an astonishing degree of orderly 
pattern. For example, in a certain type of convective fluid 
motion between two heated plates, the movement is confined 
within a regular series of hexagonal convection columns, an 
effect involving the correlated motion of trillions of mole- 
cules. Complex systems manifest surprising powers of self- 
organisation. For example, computer simulations of networks 
of lights, whose switching on and off is linked in a certain 
simple way to the state of their neighbours, are found spon- 
taneously to settle down to a limited number of orderly pat- 
terns of behaviour, rather than continuing to flash haphaz- 
ardly for ever. A system of this kind with 10,000 bulbs would 
have about 10 3000 different possible states, but its behaviour 
soon converges upon about 100 of them. This constitutes the 
self-generation of an amazing degree of orderliness. 

A second feature of chaotic systems is that they are un- 
isolatable. Because they are so sensitive, they can never be in- 
sulated from the effect of the environment in which they are 
located. Therefore they must be discussed holistically, in their 
total overall context. 

Putting these two insights together, we can see that in an 


122 



GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


ontological approach to interpreting chaos theory, one would 
expect there to be additional causal principles of an holistic 
and pattern-forming kind. One might, in brief, call such a cau- 
sality ‘active information’ and denote its holistic character by 
the phrase ‘top-down causality’, meaning by that the influ- 
ence of the whole upon its parts. In somewhat differing ways, 
Arthur Peacocke 18 and I 19 have both sought to explore a little 
of what might be the value of such speculative, but motivated, 
ideas for attempts at thinking about divine providential action. 

The theological discussion is balanced between a desire, 
on the one hand, to attain a degree of intelligibility about what 
might be involved in God’s action in the physical world and, on 
the other hand, to preserve the distinctive character of deity, 
resisting too great a degree of assimilation of the divine to the 
creaturely. 

One way of meeting the second need, and one which 
is common to all Christian thinking about God’s action, is 
the recognition of the timeless and transcendent role of the 
Creator in holding the creation in being, moment by mo- 
ment of its existence. In Hebrew terms, this is described by 
the uniquely divine word, bam; in theological terms, it corre- 
sponds to the concept of general providence. It makes God 
party to each event to the extent of the exercise of the di- 
vine permissive will in allowing that event to happen, but it 
does not imply that God actively desires that this should be so. 
Such sustaining activity has no conceivable human analogue 
and so it is a clear mark of divine uniqueness. Our principal 


18. Peacocke, Theology , chs. 3 and 9. 

19. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence (SPCK, 1989), ch. 2; Reason 
and Reality , (SPCK, 1991), ch. 3 and ref. 11. 


123 



DIVINE AGENCY 


concern, however, is with God’s immanent actions within un- 
folding creaturely history and the deliberate results that stem 
from that. Here the appropriate Hebrew word might appear 
to be ‘asah, the ordinary word for bringing things about. The 
appropriate theological concept is special providence, God’s 
particular acts on particular occasions and in particular cir- 
cumstances. These are the actions to which the concept of 
active information might have some bearing through the sup- 
position of the divine exercise of top-down causality. Here, 
also, the possibility— and some would say the danger — of in- 
appropriate human analogy has to be reckoned with. 

Peacocke and I approach this problem in different ways. 
He believes that one way of achieving a satisfactory distance 
between a universal Creator and localised creatures is to treat 
God as relating to the world-as-a-whole, so that God is a 
global Agent, in contrast to the local actions of creatures. 
While God undoubtedly does relate to the whole of cre- 
ation, yet God surely relates to individual creatures also. It 
is not clear how the demands of the particularity of personal 
providence can convincingly be met by some unexplained 
trickle-down from cosmic interaction. My strategy has been 
to locate the Creator/creature distinction in the contrast be- 
tween God’s acting through pure information input, and crea- 
turely acts which involve a mixture of energetic and infor- 
mational causalities, corresponding to the embodied status of 
creatures. This idea could be the prosaic translation of the- 
ology’s poetic insight that God’s action is the working of pure 
Spirit. I believe that such a distinction is tenable because, while 
passive information storage of the kind discussed by commu- 
nications theory does exact an irreducible energy tariff for the 
recording of bits of information, the same is not true for active 


124 



GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


information. Thus the concept of its pure form, unmixed with 
energetic causality, is a coherent one . 20 

Whatever their merits, the aim of these two strategies, 
Peacocke’s and mine, is clear enough. It is to maintain a meta- 
physical distinction between God’s providential agency and 
the intentional agency of creatures. The purpose is to ab- 
solve the proposal from the charge that it has reduced God 
to the role of being merely a cause among other competing 
causalities. The Creator, it is supposed, is more fittingly to be 
thought of as the director of the great cosmic improvisatory 
play, rather than as an invisible actor on the stage of the uni- 
verse. It is not possible, however, to remove all unease about 
how successful either strategy actually is in this regard. The 
scientist-theologian is in a catch-22 situation. The more ex- 
plicit the talk becomes about the causal joint by which God 
acts in the world, the more danger there is that providence be- 
comes just one form of causality among others. Yet, without 
some such attempt at explication, the idea of providence re- 
mains too mysterious for any discussion beyond fideistic as- 
sertion. 

I have recently come to reconsider whether the funda- 
mental theological objection one is trying to meet is as force- 
ful as I had originally supposed. What has caused this re- 
valuation is taking the kenotic nature of God’s creative act 
as seriously as possible. Of course, nothing could reduce talk 
about the Creator to terms that could bear some valid analogy 
to creaturely discourse, except that divine condescension had 
allowed this to be so. The central Christian kenotic paradox 


20. The argument is defended partly by reference to the somewhat arcane 
example provided by David Bohm’s causal reinterpretation of quantum theory. 


125 



DIVINE AGENCY 


of the incarnation centres on just such an act of divine self- 
limitation, so that God’s nature is manifested in the plainest, 
and most accessible, creaturely terms through the Word’s as- 
sumption of humanity and consequent participation in human 
life and human death in Jesus Christ. As the Fathers liked to 
say, the Ancient of Days lay as a baby in a manger. The invisible 
God took our flesh and became a visible actor on the stage of 
the universe. If we believe that Jesus is God incarnate then, 
there in first-century Palestine, God submitted in the most 
drastic way to being a cause among causes. Of course, that was 
not all that God was doing during that period. Christian the- 
ology has never simply equated God with Jesus, nor supposed 
that the historic episode of the incarnation implied that there 
was, during its period, an attentuation of the divine gover- 
nance of the universe. The incarnation does, however, suggest 
what character that governance might at all times be expected 
to take. It seems that God is willing to share with creatures, 
to be vulnerable to creatures, to an extent not anticipated by 
classical theology’s picture of the God who, through primary 
causality, is always in total control. 

This thought is the inspiration for the kenotic view of 
creation with which our discussion began, the concept that, 
in allowing the other to be, God allows creatures their part 
in bringing about the future. There must be an intertwining 
of providential and creaturely causality. Such an act of divine 
condescension would seem to correspond precisely to God’s 
loving choice to be, in the unfolding history of creation, an 
immanent cause among causes. 

Twentieth- century exploration of the implication of the 
kenotic act of creation has progressed in successive stages. The 
first point to be grasped was the divine self-limitation of om- 


126 



GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


nipotence. Acts of the creaturely other (whether the deed of a 
murderer or the incidence of a cancer) are allowed to happen, 
although they are not in accord with God’s benevolent will. 
Secondly came a recognition that creation might also imply a 
kenosis of omniscience in that an evolving world of true be- 
coming is one in which even the Creator does not yet know 
the future, for the future is not yet there to be known. 21 1 am 
now suggesting further that divine self-emptying extends to 
a kenosis of the status of agency, so that special providence 
is exercised as a cause among causes, active within the cloudy 
unpredictabilities of created process. The picture of the in- 
vulnerable, all-powerful God of classical theology has given 
way to the picture of the God who interacts within creaturely 
history but does not overrule the acts of creatures. 

Divine uniqueness is still maintained in a number of ways. 
One is God’s role in the transcendent sustaining of the world 
in being, to which reference has already been made. Another 
will be in relation to miraculous action. 22 The latter is not 
to be understood as God’s arbitrary irruption, in a quasi- 
magical way, into the otherwise smooth history of creation. 
That would involve the theological nonsense of the God of 
miracles acting against the same God whose faithful will is the 
ground of the reliable process of the universe. Rather, miracle 
is the revealing by the Creator of the profound potentiali- 
ties that the divine will has for creation, beyond those so far 
discerned in the workings of the world. Divine consistency 
requires that there must be a deep coherence between the 
already known and the now being revealed. Miracle becomes 


21. See, for example, Polkinghorne, Scientists , 41; R. Swinburne, The Coher- 
ence of Theism, (Oxford University Press, 1977), ch. 10. 

22. Polkinghorne, Providence, ch. 4. 


127 



DIVINE AGENCY 


credible when these two are seen to constitute a fundamen- 
tal unity. The central and essential Christian miracle of the 
resurrection of Jesus has just this character. It is not a hasty 
divine intervention on Easter Day to put right what had got 
badly out of hand on Good Friday, but it is the seminal event 
from which God’s new creation has begun to grow, not as the 
abolition of the old creation but by way of its redemptive ful- 
filment . 23 (The Lord’s risen body is not the replacement of his 
dead body, nor its resuscitation, but its glorification— hence 
the empty tomb.) 

This leads us to another important aspect of divine 
uniqueness. God’s purposes will eventually be fulfilled. The 
precariousness involved in the Creator’s sharing of causality 
with creatures may imply that this fulfilment will be attained 
along contingent paths, as God responds to the free actions of 
others, but the God who is the ground of a true and everlast- 
ing hope will work ceaselessly to bring salvation to creation. 
The deep theological problems of grace and free will, and of 
eschatology, are not to be disposed of in the closing paragraph 
of a chapter on divine action, but our need to wrestle, as best 
we can, with the problems of God’s agency arises from our 
religious conviction that God is no deistic spectator of the his- 
tory of the universe, nor merely the sustainer of its process, 
but that ultimately God will be this universe’s Saviour. 

If the argument of this chapter contains some truth, it 
illustrates a necessary degree of interplay between a bottom- 
up approach to divine agency (arising from scientifically mo- 
tivated conjecture about the causal joint by which it might be 


23. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief /The Faith of a Physicist 
(SPCK/Princeton University Press, 1994), chs. 6 and 9. 


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GOD IN RELATION TO NATURE 


exercised) and top-down theological constraint (arising from 
a controlling belief concerning the nature of divine love). All 
valid theological discourse must make some use of both ap- 
proaches. It is in striking a balance between them that the best 
hope of achieving insight is likely to be found. 


129 



CHAPTER SEVEN 


Natural Science , Temporality 
and Divine Action 



e have already noted that twentieth- 
century science has discovered that 
the universe itself has had a his- 
tory— that the cosmos was very dif- 
ferent in the past from the way it 
is today and that it will be differ- 
ent again in the future. Relativity 
theory has taught us that space is relational and not abso- 
lute, and that the passage of time and judgements of simulta- 
neity are both observer-dependent assessments. We have seen 
that the Newtonian picture of the ceaseless rearrangements 
of the components of an essentially unchanging world, taking 
place within the fixed container of absolute space and during 
the steady flow of absolute time, is no longer on the scien- 
tific agenda. Instead, the universe is perceived as being rela- 
tional and endowed with becoming. Yet some absolutes re- 
main, such as the speed of light acting as the limit on the 
rapidity of information transfer. In relativity theory (in the 


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NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

scientific sense) not all dissolves into a relativistic haze (in the 
popular sense). 

These scientific discoveries exercise some influence which 
flows over into metaphysics and on into theology. The con- 
nections involved are not those of strict entailment, for each 
discipline has its own due autonomy. Physics constrains meta- 
physics but it does not determine it. Yet there are certain clus- 
ters of consonant ideas that naturally associate with each other. 
The progression in forming such a cluster is first to abstract 
from science a metascientific view of aspects of physical pro- 
cess, then to incorporate this view within an appropriately ex- 
tended metaphysical scheme, and finally to correlate with the 
latter a consonant theological understanding. At each stage of 
the construction of such a chain there is scope for argument 
and dissent, but certain associations of ideas emerge that seem 
persuasively natural and which then exert considerable influ- 
ence on contemporary thinking. The purpose of this chap- 
ter is to illustrate this process by considering metascientific 
and metaphysical ideas about temporality and to discuss their 
bearing on theological concepts of God’s relation to time and 
on understandings of divine action. In regard to this latter 
subject, it is God’s particular action within the process of cre- 
ation (special providence) which will be the focus of our at- 
tention, rather than simply the divine sustaining of the world 
in its orderly being (general providence). 

The fact that there is an unavoidable degree of ambiguity 
in the results of such an exercise is illustrated at the start by 
the fact that one can identify four different metascientific ac- 
counts of the nature of time, each claiming to derive from 
contemporary physics. I shall describe them in turn, together 


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with the metaphysical views and theological stances that seem 
to associate most naturally with them. 

i. The passage of time is a trick of human psychological perspective. 

The claim is made that the most obvious aspect of the 
human experience of time, the ever-moving present in which 
events that were future and potential are momentarily real- 
ised and become actual before receding into the fixed record 
of past history, is no more than the way in which we are con- 
strained to perceive a reality which, in its fundamental nature, 
is actually atemporal, with all events equally real and exis- 
tent, whether they are classified by us as being ‘past, present 
or future’. 

(a) Metascience. Those who hold this highly counterintui- 
tive position often assert that it is a consequence of the special 
theory of relativity. For example, Russell Stannard writes that 
‘According to relativity theory, physical reality simply is ’. 1 In 
his view, we are presented with the package deal of the space- 
time continuum. This seems to have been Einstein’s opinion 
also, for on the death of his friend Michele Besso he wrote 
to his widow that ‘Michele has left this strange world just be- 
fore me. This is of no importance. For us convinced physicists 
the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, 
though a persistent one ’. 2 * 

Of course, the argument is not so crude as to say that the 
equations of relativistic physics can be written neatly and com- 
prehensively in four- dimensional form, and why then should 


1. R. Stannard, Grounds for Reasonable Belief (Scottish Academic Press, 
: 9 8 9). 9 8 - 

2. Quoted in I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order out of Chaos (Heinemann, 

i9 8 4). 2 94- 


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NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

one treat the dimension of time differently from the three 
dimensions of space? History cannot be equated with geog- 
raphy, or the possibility of time travel assimilated to that of 
motion in space, in so simple-minded a way. Instead, the argu- 
ment is made in a different way and it unavoidably involves a 
modest degree of technical discussion. 

Centred on any ‘event’ (spacetime point) there is the for- 
ward lightcone of future events that can be causally affected by 
that event, and the backward lightcone of past events that are 
capable of having influenced the event under consideration. 
These two domains are quite distinct and they are also invari- 
ant, that is to say they are the same whichever observational 
frame of reference is used to define them. All observers agree 
about them. In between, however, is a large domain of points 
that are spacelike in relation to the original event. This means 
that they can transmit no physical influence to it. This space- 
like domain is four- dimensional and different observers take 
different three-dimensional slices through it as they define 
their different loci of simultaneity. (In a Newtonian world 
there would be a unique three-dimensional domain of simul- 
taneity on which all observers would agree.) It is then claimed 
that all points in this four- dimensional spacelike domain are of 
equal status and so they all should be treated as equally real and 
existent. Shifting the location of the originating event then 
leads to a similar conclusion for the whole of spacetime. 

I believe this argument to be fallacious. Each observer’s 
locus of simultaneity is a retrospective reconstruction. No ob- 
server has knowledge of a distant event until it is unequivo- 
cally ‘past’, that is to say it lies in that observer’s backward 
lightcone. There is, therefore, no special privilege attaching 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


to these distant events, prior to their actual occurrence, of a 
kind that would grant them atemporal existence. The argu- 
ment cannot establish the reality of the future. 

Another way of establishing the same point would be to 
say that it is perfectly consistent with special relativity (which 
is here acting as a kinematical specification of the geometry of 
spacetime) to suppose that there is a particular frame of refer- 
ence (equivalently, a definition of a preferred time axis) which 
expresses the actual moving present moment (and presumably 
coincides with our psychological perception of that present 
moment) provided that this frame does not have a special iden- 
tifiable role in relation to the dynamical theories of physics. 
In other words, the ‘present moment frame’ would have to 
be ‘hidden’ as far as fundamental physics was concerned, but 
it could well be discernible as far as other and wider experi- 
ence was concerned (human psychological perception, for in- 
stance), or as metaphysical theory might require. There is only 
real cause for uneasiness about this solution if one takes a 
physical reductionist position and insists on identifying sci- 
ence (more accurately, metascience) with a totally adequate 
metaphysical account of reality. In that case, the present mo- 
ment frame would be suspect, but nothing compels this lim- 
ited view. 

Much the same kind of response can be made to another 
argument, sometimes explicitly made but more often left im- 
plicit, that because the equations of physics express in no obvi- 
ous way the existence of a present moment (one might say, 
there is no special status for t = 0), such an existence is to be 
denied, contrary to common sense experience. ‘If this is the 
case, so much the worse for physics’, I would reply. Its inability 
to express the present moment is better understood as indi- 


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NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

eating the inadequacy of a reductive physicalism rather than 
as abolishing the idea of a moving present. 

The limitations of a purely physics-based approach are 
further exemplified by the latter’s inability to give a clear and 
universally accepted answer to the question of the origin of 
time’s arrow. So far we have been discussing what the philoso- 
pher John McTaggart would have called the A-series: past- 
present-future. Time’s arrow is a way of referring to the un- 
tensed B-series: earlier-later. With one exception (which was 
important at the epoch of the very early universe but which 
is entirely negligible today), the fundamental laws of physics 
are all time-reversal invariant, that is to say they make no in- 
trinsic distinction between past and future. The direction of 
the arrow of time is undefined by them. Physicists have to 
build into the solutions of their equations this direction in 
which causal influences are found to propagate (technically, by 
selecting retarded potentials and discarding advanced poten- 
tials). It is commonly believed that time’s arrow is an emer- 
gent effect of increasing complexity, with appeal being made 
to the second law of thermodynamics, so as to use the direc- 
tion of the increasing entropy of isolated systems as the deter- 
mination of the orientation of time. From this point of view, 
irreversibility appears to be a secondary, rather than a funda- 
mental, property of natural process. However, the matter is 
still not well understood. 

Since measurement is the irreversible registration of an 
observation, there may well be a connection here with the 
well-known measurement problem in quantum theory . 3 This 


3. See, for example, J. C. Polkinghorne, The Quantum World (Penguin, 
1990), ch. 6. 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


latter process implies a direction of time’s arrow, since the 
variety of possible outcomes that might result from measur- 
ing a property of a quantum system are only resolved into a 
definite value found on a particular occasion after the act of 
measurement has taken place. 

(b) Metaphysics. The foregoing metascientific view has 
been criticised both because it is not strictly entailed by 
physics, and also because of its inability to accommodate 
broader aspects of the human encounter with reality. If, how- 
ever, these counter-arguments are overruled, or held to be of 
little force, then the metaphysical picture that results is clearly 
that of the block universe : 4 the unified totality of all spacetime 
events in their undifferentiated atemporal reality. Within that 
totality there is a B-series ordering, discriminating what pre- 
cedes from what follows, but no temporal A-series ordering 
induced by the moving boundary between past and future. 

Proponents of this view usually deny that the coexistence 
of the ‘future’ with the ‘past’ implies in any way a rigid deter- 
minism. Spacetime events simply are, and the question of what 
causal relationships there might be between them is held to 
be a separate issue altogether. Nevertheless, a suspicion con- 
tinues to lurk in some minds that, at the very least, determin- 
ism is naturally compatible with a block universe. 

(c) Theology. The theological view that seems consonant 
with a block universe is the idea of classical theology, stem- 
ming from Augustine and Boethius, that God knows the whole 
history of creation timelessly and ‘at once’ ( totmn simul). All 

4. For a discussion of some of the issues, see C. J. Isham and J. C. Polking- 
horne, ‘The Debate over the Block Universe’ in R. J. Russell, N. Murphy and C. J. 
Isham (eds.), Quantum Cosmology and the Laws of Nature (Vatican Observatory, 1993), 
I 34" I 44- 


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NATURAL SCIENCE, TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

‘presents’ are simultaneously known by God. In a block uni- 
verse this must surely be so for, if the reality of all events is fun- 
damentally atemporal and God knows everything as it actually 
is, then that divine knowledge must itself be atemporal. Con- 
versely, if God does know everything at once, then this seems 
to imply a theological endorsement of the block universe and 
for the same reason, namely that divine knowledge is totally 
truthful knowledge. (Defenders of classical theism might wish 
to claim that if creation were temporal, God could have true 
knowledge of that temporality, even if it were acquired atem- 
porally, but it does not seem clear that this is so. At issue is the 
question of how faithfully divine ways of knowing reflect the 
nature of the reality that is known.) 

If God’s untensed knowledge of created reality is as 
totally different from tensed human knowledge, as is being 
claimed, this might well seem to call into question the validity 
of any discussion of divine agency that attempted to base itself 
on analogic! entis (analogy of being). In fact, as we have seen, 
the tradition of classical theology had recourse to the idea of 
God’s primary agency at work in and through the secondary 
agencies of creatures in a way that is open neither to expli- 
cation nor to exhibition. Thomas Aquinas is the patron saint 
of this proposition and its modern defenders have included 
the Anglican theologian Austin Farrer . 5 The ineft ability of this 
claim has given rise both to the questionings of its critics and 
the support of its adherents. 

As with the metaphysics of the block universe itself, so in 
relation to divine atemporal knowledge and primary causality, 
there has arisen the question of whether this view might not 

5. Austin Farrer, Faith and Speculation (A&C Black, 1967). 


137 



DIVINE AGENCY 


incline too much towards determinism and thus carry the risk 
of abolishing creaturely freedom. Aquinas denied that this is 
so, for God does not ‘foreknow’ the result of a free act. In- 
stead, in the divine simultaneous apprehension of all presents, 
God knows such acts as and when they happen, which no 
more compromises creaturely freedom than does the tempo- 
rally simultaneously gained knowledge of the same act that 
can be acquired by another creaturely observer. Nevertheless, 
again some suspicions linger, not least in relation to how di- 
vine primary causality might actually relate to the secondary 
causality of free human actions. 

At the level of the scientific observation of physical pro- 
cess, primary causality would seem to be indistinguishable 
from a scientistic naturalism. It would appear that the causal 
net of physical process could be drawn as tight as one liked, 
even to the point of a strict determinism, without theologi- 
cally prejudicing the proposal. We have seen (chapter 6) that 
this feature is both one of its great merits in the eyes of its pro- 
posers (invulnerability to scientific discovery, whatever form 
that might prove to take) and also one of its great defects in 
the eyes of its opponents (God’s presence and agency ought 
to make a difference to what happens). It seems strange that 
naturalism and primary causality can be so identical in their 
physics and so radically different in their metaphysics. 

2 . Time is a secondary construction. 

This radical view sees temporal sequences as emerging 
properties in certain physical situations, but it denies to time a 
fundamental place in the the description of the natural world. 

(a) Metascience. The origin of such an opinion lies in 
certain continuing efforts to construct a quantum theory 
of gravity. We have already noted (chapter i) that quantum 


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NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

theory and general relativity, the two great physical theories 
discovered in the twentieth century, are currently imperfectly 
reconciled with each other. Their eventual mutual integration 
is obviously necessary, not only for the consistency of physics 
but also for the task of understanding the very early universe. 
General relativity is fundamental to all cosmological theoris- 
ing and before the Planck time (10~ 43 seconds) the universe was 
small enough for quantum effects to be of great cosmic sig- 
nificance. Although such an infinitesimal cosmic epoch might 
seem extremely remote, processes occurring then are believed 
to have had lasting consequences for properties such as the 
distribution of matter in the universe. 

Quantum gravity is currently an extremely uncertain and 
speculative discipline but one way in which attempts are being 
made to resolve some of its problems accords a primary role 
to space and a secondary role to time. 6 The rules of quantum 
mechanics are applied to the immense variety of spatial ge- 
ometries that might be conceived to exist, and probability am- 
plitudes (the basic quantum mechanical calculational entity) 
evaluated for transitions between them. In certain appropri- 
ate circumstances, a ‘classical’ type of trajectory can form in 
which a sequence of spatial geometries ‘stack up’ to form a 
succession that is susceptible to a temporal interpretation. In 
this particular case (which has held in our universe from about 
the Planck time onwards), time emerges as a contingent fea- 
ture of events. 

All that may seem perplexing enough. The matter is fur- 
ther complicated by the way in which quantum theory is being 

6. See C. J. Isham, ‘Quantum Theories of the Creation of the Universe’ in 
Russell et al. (eds.), Quantum Cosmology , 49-89. 


139 



DIVINE AGENCY 


applied to the problem. One of the unsolved interpretative 
difficulties, to which we referred earlier, is the measurement 
problem. How does it come about that the fitful quantum 
world yields a definite answer on each actual occasion of its ex- 
perimental interrogation, when the theory itself only assigns 
probabilities for a range of possible outcomes? Various pro- 
posals have been made, none completely satisfactory, of which 
the most generally popular has been some variation on the 
Copenhagen interpretation: it is due to the intervention of 
large ‘classical’ measuring apparatus. If, however, one is try- 
ing to apply quantum mechanics to the whole universe, this 
particular option is not available; there is nothing left over to 
play the role of the measuring apparatus! Quantum cosmolo- 
gists have, therefore, favoured an interpretation which has 
not so widely recommended itself to other physicists. This is 
the so-called ‘many-worlds’ interpretation, proposed by Hugh 
Everett III. It is suggested that every possible outcome of an 
observation is in fact realised and our belief to the contrary is 
due to a division of the world at each such act of measurement 
into a series of parallel worlds in each of which only one out- 
come is perceived by the relevant observer to have happened. 
(Everett himself preferred to express this idea in terms of the 
‘cloning’ of parallel observers.) 

Clearly this is a proposal of immense prodigality in re- 
lation to the scope of physical reality. Its employment has 
the consequence, seldom emphasised clearly by quantum cos- 
mologists, that in the circumstances in which a time sequence 
is derivable at all, there will not be just one such sequence but 
a vast variety of differing parallel cosmic histories. 

These heady speculations are rightly called metascience 


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NATURAL SCIENCE, TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

because they go far beyond what can claim the sober status 
of widely agreed physical understanding. Their durability as 
scientific ideas is open to question. 

(b) Metaphysics. The ideas of quantum cosmology are 
too novel, and currently too uncertain, to have fed into any 
developed metaphysical account. The general picture is of 
a reality that at one level is fundamentally characterised by 
quantum mechanical disorder, but in which patches of tem- 
poral ordering emerge. Reality is multi-valued in terms of 
the incompatible but parallel histories that are realised within 
it. Yet, in another sense, the overall picture is orderly to the 
point of being deterministic. The basic equation that in many- 
worlds quantum theory plays the part one might call equiva- 
lent to ‘the Schrodinger equation of the universe’ (actually it is 
the Wheeler-DeWitt equation, which differs from the Schro- 
dinger equation in not including a time derivative because of 
the secondary character of time in this formulation) is for- 
mally a perfectly deterministic linear equation in a vast array of 
variables. Time is secondary and emergent at one level because 
fundamentally the whole quantum universe, as this speculative 
theory understands it, simply ‘is’ in its variegated totality. 

(c) Theology. At either level of interpretation (parallel 
worlds or overall totality), this view abolishes any notion of 
a true history capable of accommodating or expressing God’s 
economy of interacting relationship with creation. Overall, 
there is no time but only fuzzy quantum being. In those sub- 
systems where ‘time’ emerges, there is a great variety of alter- 
native and equally valid temporal unfoldings (a world in which 
Judas betrays Christ and one in which he does not?). At best, 
one might say that the universe is God’s multi-screen experi- 


141 



DIVINE AGENCY 


mental theatre, with every conceivable scenario being enacted. 
Such an account not only subverts the significance of human 
biography and responsibility (true moral beings could not 
exist in a realm of multiple happenings) but it would also be 
fatal to an historically based religion like Christianity. 

It is interesting to consider briefly Frank Tipler’s so- 
called ‘physical theology ’, 7 for it operates with a many-worlds 
quantum cosmology. Tipler’s treatment is strongly physical- 
ist and reductionist. Human beings are treated as finite state 
machines (computers) and life is equated to the processing 
of information. A final state boundary condition is imposed 
on ‘the wavefunction of the universe’ that requires that in 
the dying final fractions of a second of a collapsing cosmos, 
all parts of it are in causal contact with each other. This is 
held to facilitate the coming-to-be of a cosmic computer, 
Omega (a ‘physical god’ in Tipler’s phrase), whose ever-faster 
racing operations will permit the processing of an infinite 
number of bits of information in the course of the approach to 
the ultimate event of the universe’s death. Tipler regards this 
conjectural achievement as fulfilling a ‘physical eschatology’, 
claiming that Omega will ‘resurrect’ persons by constructing 
emulations (computer copies) of the fleshly computers that 
they once were when biologically alive. 

It is all extremely fantastic and the proposal has made 
little impression on theologians with a scientific background . 8 

7. F. J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality (Macmillan, 1994). 

8. I. G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (SCM Press, 1990), 151; A. R. 
Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (SCM Press, enlarged edition 1993), 345; J. C. 
Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief/The Faith of a Physicist (SPCK/Princeton 
University Press, 1994), 165-166. 


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NATURAL SCIENCE, TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

For our present purpose we can regard the baroque conjec- 
tures of physical eschatology as giving a measure of the actual 
theological vacuity of this point of view of the nature of time. 
5. The evolution of time is a closed process. 

Time is treated as a measure of the stage of develop- 
ment of a physical process that is causally closed upon itself. 
The laws of physics control the state of the world and deter- 
mine fully how one such state gives rise to its temporal suc- 
cessor. This is the picture which many people, including it 
seems some theologians, believe is the deliverance of modern 
science: the clockwork universe. Others believe that the un- 
certainties of quantum mechanics have negated this account 
as far as subatomic processes are concerned, but they are un- 
sure what implications this carries for the macroscopic world 
in which all human action and experience seems to be located. 

(a) Metascience. The distinction between science and 
metascience is made abundantly clear by the existence of 
rival interpretations of the fundamental character of quan- 
tum theory. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is a statement 
about limitations on the precision attainable in measurements 
made on quantum systems. In other words, originally it was 
an epistemological result, referring to what we can know. The 
great majority of physicists have followed Heisenberg and 
Bohr in interpreting it ontologically, that is to say as expressing 
an actual degree of indeterminacy in the behaviour of quan- 
tum entities. This interpretation is the basis of the widespread 
belief that the quantum world displays a degree of causal open- 
ness towards the future and that its probabilistic nature is the 
expression of a rift in a tight causal nexus. However, there is no 
forced move from epistemology to ontology and a minority of 


143 



DIVINE AGENCY 


physicists have wanted to hold on to a deterministic account 
of quantum phenomena, with probabilism then arising from 
our ignorance of all the causal determinants actually at work. 
Causes of this covert kind are given the generic name ‘hid- 
den variables’. David Bohm constructed just such an account 
of quantum theory , 9 which is identical to conventional quan- 
tum mechanics in its experimental consequences but totally 
contrasting in its picture of the nature of physical process. 
The choice between Bohr and Bohm is metascientific. It is 
based on such criteria as judgements of naturalness and lack of 
contrivance, and on metaphysical preferences for determin- 
ism or open process, but not on tests of empirical adequacy. 
It is, therefore, perfectly possible in the twenty-first century 
to hold an account of the physical world that is as unprob- 
lematically objective and deterministic as was the eighteenth- 
century mechanics of Newton and Laplace. 

Contrary to the claim sometimes made by theologians , 10 
this statement is not modified by the nineteenth- century dis- 
covery, stemming from the insights of Faraday and Maxwell, 
of the existence of fields. A classical field is a perfectly me- 
chanical system, differing in its nature from the mechanics of 
particles only by the fact that it involves an infinite number 
of degrees of freedom (distinct ways in which it can change) 
rather than a finite number. The mathematical consequence of 
this is that field theory is expressed in terms of partial differen- 
tial equations rather than ordinary differential equations, but 
both kinds of equation are equally deterministic. One may also 

9. D. Bohm and B. Hiley, The Undivided Universe (Routledge, 1993). 

10. See chapter 8. 


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NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

note that classical fields are local entities, that is to say indepen- 
dent changes can be made at spatially separated points because 
there is no integrated constraint imposed on the structure of 
the whole. 

(b) Metaphysics. Because perfect knowledge of the present 
implies for a deterministic system perfect prediction of the 
future and perfect retrodiction of the past (Laplace’s cele- 
brated calculating demon with universal knowledge), it is pos- 
sible to assimilate the apparently temporal metaphysics of this 
option to the atemporal picture of option i. Traditionally, 
however, this has not been the strategy followed and a de- 
terministic universe has usually been considered temporally, 
despite, as we noted earlier, there being no intrinsic way of 
representing the present moment in its equations. The mathe- 
matically minded could picture the moving present as being 
the unfolding surface of solutions as the deterministic equa- 
tions are integrated from the starting point of their initial con- 
ditions. A computer would generate a time- dependent solu- 
tion in just this successive fashion, so that one could think of 
the history of a universe of this type as being the analogue 
integration of the equations of the fundamental theory. 

(c) Theology. Because of the feasibility of assimilating op- 
tion 3 to option i, it would be possible to associate with a closed 
universe the theological picture of divine primary causality 
acting in and under its tight secondary determinism. One must 
emphasise again, however, that those classical theologians who 
defend the notion of primary causality do so whilst repudiating 
strict physical determinism and claiming the compatibility of 
divine atemporal knowledge with temporal human choice and 
responsibility. 


145 



DIVINE AGENCY 


Much the most common theological response to a closed 
universe has been that of deism. In a clockwork world the Cre- 
ator has nothing much to do except be the Cosmic Clock- 
maker who set it all up and now simply lets it tick away. One 
sees this view developing in the eighteenth century among the 
post-Newtonian generations. Sir Isaac himself certainly did 
not think this way, for he saw a causal role for spirits (for ex- 
ample, producing every fifty thousand years or so angelic cor- 
rections to the motion of the solar system which otherwise, he 
feared, might have wobbled apart), and he made his celebrated 
but mysterious assertion that space was the ‘sensorium of God’. 
His successors tended to think otherwise. To them, the God of 
deism then became too much of an absentee landlord to carry 
much conviction and the transition to accept atheism came 
relatively easily. 

The contemporary atemporal deism of Maurice Wiles, 11 
which simply assigns to the deity the single great act of hold- 
ing the world in being, is in the same tradition. One feels that 
Wiles does not wish to risk a divine interruption into what he 
believes to be the self-contained process of the universe. An 
unnecessary deference to a particular and contentious meta- 
scientific account has been allowed to induce impotence in 
theological thinking about special providential divine action. 
4. The evolution of time is an open process. 

While acknowledging the role of a physical causality that 
is expressed through the interchange of energy between con- 
stituent parts, this option suggests that these effects do not 
suffice to determine completely the temporal development of 


ii. M. F. Wiles, God's Action in the World (SCM Press, 1986). 


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NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

the world. There is held to be scope for the action of addi- 
tional causal principles that serve to bring about the future. 
What character these principle might have is discussed below. 

(a) Metascience. Contemporary understanding of physi- 
cal process detects within it a considerable degree of intrin- 
sic unpredictability, both within quantum theory and within 
chaos theory . 12 There is a large and inescapable epistemologi- 
cal deficit in our knowledge of the behaviour of physical pro- 
cess. The critical metascientific question is what ontological 
significance, if any, is to assigned to this fact. 

I have argued 13 that the realist philosophy that is so natu- 
ral a stance for a scientist to take encourages us to align epis- 
temology and ontology as closely as possible with each other. 
In other words, intrinsic unpredictability is to be treated as 
the signal of an underlying ontological openness. In fact, as we 
have already seen, this is indeed the policy embraced by most 
physicists in relation to quantum theory. 

In the case of chaos theory, the majority approach has 
been different. The most popular metascientific conclusion 
has been to take absolutely seriously the deterministic equa- 
tions from which classical chaos derives and to draw the les- 
son that apparently complex and random behaviour can have a 
simple and deterministic underlying origin. This is, of course, 
a perfectly permissible metascientific choice to make and it 
has doubtless been encouraged by the fact that the under- 
lying structure in this case would be the time-honoured New- 
tonian equations of motion. It is not, however, the only pos- 


12. J. Gleick, Chaos (Heinemann, 1988). 

13. J. C.Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (SPCK, 1991), ch. 3. See also chap- 
ter 6 in this book. 


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DIVINE AGENCY 


sible metascientific strategy. I have proposed the alternative 
of a realist reading in which the classical unpredictabilities 
are taken to be signals of openness. 14 Newton’s equations are 
then to be treated as downward emergent approximations to a 
more subtle and supple physical reality, approximations that 
are valid in those special circumstances in which parts can 
adequately be isolated from the whole in which they partici- 
pate. As we have seen in chapter 6, there then emerges the 
concept of a new kind of causality, complementing the ener- 
getic bottom-up causal exchanges between parts described by 
conventional physics, and having the character of top-down, 
holistic pattern formation. I have called this metascientific 
picture ‘contextualisin' (for the behaviour of constituents var- 
ies with the context they are set in), and the corresponding 
causal principles ‘active information’. 

It would be possible to consider a hybrid scheme in which 
the widely assumed openness of quantum events had its con- 
sequences amplified and made apparent in the macroscopic 
world through the sensitivity of chaotic systems to small fluc- 
tuations occurring at the subatomic level. There are, however, 
technical problems that make this proposal problematic. One 
is our inability to solve the measurement problem in quantum 
theory. With this question unresolved, we are ignorant of pre- 
cisely how the microscopic and macroscopic levels relate to 
each other. Another difficulty has been the inability to iden- 
tify clearly what the quantum mechanical equivalent of chaos 
is. The hybrid scheme may well prove to be part of the meta- 


14. J. C. Polkinghorne, Belief in Godin an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 
1998), ch. 3. See also, I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty (Free Press, 1997). 


148 



NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

scientific picture being developed, but it would be unwise to 
rely on it alone. 

(b) Metaphysics. This particular approach extends our 
conception of the range of causal principles that may be 
thought to be at work in determining the open future. Among 
possible consequences of active information might be: 

(i) Holistic laws of nature which facilitate the coming-to- 
be of certain kinds of complexity. Stuart Kauffman has 
made a proposal of this kind in relation to biological evo- 
lution . 15 

(ii) There might here be a glimmer (no more) of how 
one might begin to conceive of the relationship be- 
tween mind (intention — like pattern forming) and brain 
(physical activity— like energetic exchange). 

(iii) Theology is offered the possibility of beginning to un- 
derstand its discourse of God’s special providential ac- 
tion, often expressed in terms of the Spirit’s guiding cre- 
ation, in terms of a divine interaction within the world 
through active information. 

All three kinds of causal activity would be at work within the 
non-localisable, unpredictable cloudiness of chaotic systems. 
While these effects would genuinely share in determining the 
future, they would not be disentangleable from each other or 
unambiguously identifiable. One could not itemise physical 
process, saying ‘Nature did this, human agency did that, God 
did the other’. 

15. S. A. Kauffman, The Origins of Order (Oxford University Press, 1993). 


149 



DIVINE AGENCY 


A reality within which such a variety of causal principles 
would be at work is clearly one in which temporal process is 
to be taken absolutely seriously. This option presents a meta- 
physics of dynamical becoming, in contrast to one of static 
being. The future is not up there waiting for us to arrive; we 
play our part in bringing it about, for it is contingent upon 
our executed intentions as well as on the operation of other 
causalities and agencies. 

(c) Theology. The option under discussion has the at- 
traction of allowing scope for the operation of divine special 
providence in the history of the universe. Because of the hid- 
den character of active information, God’s action will not be 
demonstrable, though it may be discernible by the discrimi- 
nating eye of faith. The balance between divine agency and 
other forms of causality is left open in this proposal which, 
therefore, has to continue the long theological discussion of 
the relationship between grace and free will, considered now 
in a cosmic setting. A critical theological question is whether 
the cost of the idea would be unacceptable because it seemed 
to reduce the Creator to the role of an unseen cause among 
creaturely causes, an issue already discussed in chapter 6. 

The strongly temporal character of the metaphysics pro- 
posed seems to imply that God, knowing the universe as it 
actually is, would know it temporally. The future would be 
brought into being as time evolves and it would appear that 
God, knowing all that can be known, would nevertheless not 
yet know the unformed future. God’s act of creation would 
not only have involved a divine kenosis of omnipotence, re- 
sulting from allowing the creaturely other truly to be itself, 
but also a divine kenosis of omniscience, arising from allowing 
the future to be truly open. 


150 



NATURAL SCIENCE , TEMPORALITY AND DIVINE ACTION 

Thus the theological picture consonant with this option 
is one that sees in the divine nature a temporal pole of engage- 
ment with creation as well as, of course, an eternal pole cor- 
responding to the steadfastly unchanging benevolent nature 
of God. There would be divine knowledge of creation, always 
complete in terms of realised history but not embracing a 
future that is open and not yet actualised. These ideas have 
been supported by a number of people writing on the interface 
between science and theology . 16 


PROCESS THOUGHT 

Such a dipolar view of God, and of divine current omni- 
science, has also been a characteristic of process thinking . 17 It 
may seem surprising that a process option was not included in 
the foregoing discussion. The reason for its omission lies at the 
metascientific level in the chain of argument. The punctuated 
discrete events (‘actual occasions’), which form the basis of 
the picture of the nature of physical process presented in the 
thought of A. N. Whitehead and his followers, are difficult to 
reconcile with our scientific knowledge. Conventional quan- 
tum theory certainly has its discrete moments of discontinu- 
ous change (‘the collapse of the wavepacket’), but they are only 
associated with a particular kind of event, namely measure- 
ments. In between such macroscopic interventions, a quan- 
tum system evolves in a perfectly smooth and continuous way, 
according to the rule of the Schrodinger equation. Therefore, 
I do not detect a point of anchorage for process metaphysics 


1 6. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Scientists as Theologians (SPCK, 1996), 41 

17. In the context of science and theology, see Barbour, Religion , ch. 8. 


151 



DIVINE AGENCY 


in what we know about physics. Thus the generalising chain of 
consonant concepts, which we discussed in connection with 
the four selected options, appears broken at its first link in the 
case of process thought. The final link would also be suspect, 
since process theologians’ view of God’s action is based solely 
on the power of divine persuasion, with the ultimate initiative 
lying with the concrescing event itself. This, in my opinion, 
presents too weak an account to be adequate to accommodate 
the Christian experience of prayer or the Christian intuition 
of God’s providence at work in history. 

One might claim that the ontological interpretation of 
chaos theory offers an opportunity to express some of the 
more theologically congenial aspects of process thinking (such 
as the openness of creation to the future) in a way that is sci- 
entifically more persuasive. A similar comment might also be 
made about some of the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin . 18 His 
concept of ‘radial energy’ corresponds to nothing that is sci- 
entifically recognisable in conventional energetic terms, but it 
could be reinterpreted as a metaphor for the effect of active 
information. 


18. P. Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, (Collins, 1959). 


152 



Part III 


SIGNIFICANT 

THINKERS 




CHAPTER EIGHT 


Contemporaries 


n my book Scientists as Theologians , 1 1 
surveyed the thinking of three scien- 
tist-theologians, Ian Barbour, Arthur 
Peacocke and myself. For each of us, 
our intellectual formation had lain in 
_ science and it was only later in life that 
we turned to theology. In the course 
of this comparative study of our writings on science and the- 
ology, there emerged both important common themes and 
also significant differences of approach and conclusion among 
the three of us. I acknowledged that I was leaving out of the 
account both theologians who pay some attention to mod- 
ern science in their writings and also scientists who display an 
interest in a theistic view of reality but who are not adherents 
of any faith tradition. I now wish to remedy this deficit to some 
extent by considering the relevant ideas of Wolfhart Pannen- 
berg and Thomas Torrance, both outstanding examples of the 


i. J. C. Polkinghorne, Scientists as Theologians (SPCK, 1996). 


155 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


first category, and of Paul Davies, an outstanding example of 
the second category. 


8.1 WOLFHART PANNENBERG’s ENGAGEMENT 
WITH THE NATURAL SCIENCES 

Wolfhart Pannenberg is unquestionably one of the leading 
theologians of the second half of the twentieth century. His 
thought is of particular interest to those of us whose intel- 
lectual formation lies in the natural sciences. There are many 
reasons why this should be so. One is Pannenberg ’s open ap- 
proach to theology, acknowledging the possibility of its being 
in need of correction and allowing an appeal to evidence as the 
ground for motivated belief, not least in relation to the res- 
urrection of Christ. This suggests the existence of a degree 
of intellectual kinship between theology and science. Another 
reason, of a most direct kind to catch the attention of scien- 
tists, is that Pannenberg himself expresses a serious concern 
with what the natural sciences have to say. Not for him the 
life of the theological ghetto, which some of his fellow practi- 
tioners seem to occupy, in which a special language is spoken, 
allowing no discourse with those tongues whose utterance lies 
outside that closed world. Pannenberg is a firm believer in the 
unity of knowledge, a conviction derived from his belief in 
the one true God whose creative will is the ground of all that 
is. Scientists are instinctive synthesisers, looking for the inte- 
grated account that a grand unified theory can confer, and so 
this all-embracing view is very congenial to their intellectual 
inclination. 

Pannenberg ’s writings are voluminous and demanding. 
It is, therefore, a great benefit that there is a single volume 


156 



CONTEMPORARIES 


in which some of his essays of particular relevance to science 
are gathered together; his thought is discussed by a variety of 
scientists, philosophers and theologians; and he himself re- 
sponds at the end to this vigorous debate . 2 Its editor, Carol 
Rausch Albright, provides clear and sure-footed introductory 
prefaces to the successive sections into which the material is 
organised — a guide to the labyrinth which will be appreciated 
by many readers. 

The foundation of Pannenberg’s thinking is his belief 
in God as the all- determining reality. In his opinion, there 
is no realm of human enquiry or area of human experience 
from which God is excluded or which can be fully intelligible 
without taking into account the divine will and purpose that 
undergirds it. Here is the modern formulation of the scholas- 
tic concept of theology as the Queen of the Sciences, under- 
standing ‘science’ in the medieval sense of scientia , all knowl- 
edge, and with theology’s regal status deriving from its access 
to the deepest and most comprehensive ground of intelligi- 
bility, rather than from a presumed prescriptive right to tell 
the other individual sciences what to think at the level of their 
first-order enquiries. The critical question here is one of scope. 
Other particular sciences pursue a limited range of enquiry; 
theology is unlimited in the width of its considerations, for it 
is ‘not concerned with this or that being in its particularity, or 
with one area of reality which can be separated from others . . . 
[but] with reality in general ’. 3 


2. C. R. Albright and J. Hangen (eds.), Beginning with the End (Open Court, 
x 997 ); see a ^ so th e collection of Pannenberg’s essays in T. Peters (ed.), Towards a 
Theology of Nature (Westminster/John Knox, 1993). 

3. W. Pannenberg, Theology and the Philosophy of Science (Darton, Longman 
and Todd, 1976), 303. 


157 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


In relation to the natural sciences, this leads Pannenberg 
to write, 

If the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, 
then it is not possible to understand fully or even ap- 
propriately the processes of nature without any refer- 
ence to that God. If, on the contrary, nature can be ap- 
propriately understood without reference to the God 
of the Bible, then that God cannot be the creator of 
the universe, and consequently he cannot be truly God 
and be trusted as a source of moral teaching either . 4 

The last remark is clearly intended as a refutation of the Kant- 
ian programme that allocated the physical world to science 
and the moral sphere to religion. Some care would be needed 
in evaluating what such a claim about the processes of nature 
could actually amount to. 

The manifest success of a methodologically atheistic natural 
science, often pursued with great insight by people of no reli- 
gious belief, shows that it would be implausible to suggest too 
direct an influence of theology upon the researches of science. 
Moreover, such a claim of the relative independence of the 
natural sciences could find a degree of theological support. We 
have seen that an important aspect of much twentieth-century 
theological thinking about the doctrine of creation has been 
an emphasis on the kenotic character of the Creator’s act . 5 A 
letting-be by divine love of the truly other, allowed by God to 
be itself, carries with it the implication of a degree of due in- 

4. Albright and Haugen, Beginning , 38. 

5. See J. Moltmann, God in Creation (SCM Press, 1985), ch. 4. See also chap- 
ter 6 in this volume. 


158 



CONTEMPORARIES 


dependence granted to creatures. We may understand this as 
being the theological source of science’s ability to pursue its 
investigations etsi deus non daretur, as if God did not exist. 

From the biblical material, one might also draw attention 
to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The wisdom 
writers take a cool look at what is happening in the world, de- 
scribing it in terms of sufficient theological neutrality as to en- 
able them to add to it borrowings from similar writings drawn 
from the surrounding cultures. References to YHWH, where 
present at all, take the form of general exhortations to remem- 
ber that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and 
there is no specific appeal to God’s acts of deliverance and 
judgement within history, of the kind that forms so great a 
matter of concern in the rest of the Hebrew scriptures. The 
wisdom writers presumably held that there were things that 
could be understood without such an appeal. 

Where theological understanding does come in to aug- 
ment and complement scientific understanding is in relation 
to certain limit questions that arise out of scientific experi- 
ence but which transcend science’s own self-limited range of 
enquiry. They revolve around two fundamental metaques- 
tions: 

(i) Why is the universe so deeply intelligible? Putting it 
more bluntly, Why is science possible? Our ability to under- 
stand the physical world seems vastly to exceed anything that 
could plausibly be held to correspond to evolutionary neces- 
sity, or to be a happy accidental spin-off from survival require- 
ments. Science exploits the wonderful rational transparency 
of the physical world, but it does not explain it. If the universe 
is the creation of the rational God, then it is possible to under- 


159 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


stand its intelligibility as due to its being shot through with 
signs of the mind of its Creator, signs that are accessible to the 
thoughts of creatures made in the image of the Creator. 

(2) Why is the universe so special? This question arises 
from the recognition, enshrined in the Anthropic Principle, 
that the laws of nature are fine-tuned to the high degree of 
specificity found to be necessary to make the evolution of 
carbon-based life a possibility. There are a variety of responses 
possible to the issues raised here. Theism is not the only con- 
ceivable answer, but it is one that is coherent, economic and 
intellectually satisfying. 

Considering metaquestions of this kind takes us beyond 
science in the direction of the deeper and more comprehen- 
sive understanding that theism can provide. Such arguments 
have been the basis of a revival in natural theology . 6 

There are also further theological insights that comple- 
ment understandings drawn from science but which corre- 
spond to a theology of nature rather than a natural theology. 
The latter frames its arguments in terms of rumours of God 
derived ‘from below’, appealing to the intelligibility and fruit- 
fulness of the world, in contrast to the former’s insights de- 
rived ‘from above’, appealing to the concept of the Creator to 
give greater understanding of the processes of that world. A 
prime example would be the the theological insight we have 
already espoused that interprets an evolutionary universe, not 
as being the meaningless empire of accident proclaimed by 
atheist biologists such as Jacques Monod and Richard 

6. See P. Davies, The Mind of God (Simon and Schuster, 1992); J. C. Polking- 
horne, Science and Creation (SPCK, 1998), chs. 1 and 2. 


160 



CONTEMPORARIES 


Dawkins , 7 but as a creation allowed by God to explore and 
realise the potentiality with which it has been endowed . 8 

Pannenberg’s actual engagement with the natural sci- 
ences has not been in such specific terms as are involved either 
in the discussion of natural theology or of a theology of nature. 
He has certainly sought to conduct a detailed dialogue with 
the human sciences , 9 an interface with theology which is obvi- 
ously of the highest significance for both disciplines. Indeed 
Pannenberg has gone so far as to say that ‘The meaning of 
the word “God” can, since the beginning of modern times, 
be determined only by anthropology ’. 10 Yet, in contrast, his 
intercourse with the physical and biological sciences has been 
conducted in very general terms. It has revolved around three 
broad topics, each characteristic also of Pannenberg’s wider 
theological concerns. 

(i) The concept of field. This is, perhaps, the most baffling 
aspect of Pannenberg’s thought for the scientist to confront. 
His writings abound with reference to fields as expressions 
of divine presence and as significant entities in other ways as 
well. The first problem is how seriously should the language 
be taken? If the word ‘field’ is just being used in a non-specific 
sense to signify something involving the notion of extended 
relationality, then the scientist could have nothing to quar- 
rel with except to express a regret that a word with a pre- 


7. J. Monod, Chance and Necessity (Collins, 1972); R. Dawkins, The Blind 
Watchmaker (Longman, 1986). 

8. See I. G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (SCM Press, 1966), ch. 12; 
A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (Oxford University Press, 1979). 

9. W. Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Westminster, 

i9 8 5)- 

10. Pannenberg in Peters, Theology of Nature, 81. 


161 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


cise meaning in physics was being employed in this rather 
vague way. However, this does not seem to be all that is going 
on. References to Faraday (but not many references to the 
enormous development of the field concept that followed in 
physics during the next one hundred and fifty years) seem to 
suggest a more focussed appeal to scientific parallels. 

We are told that by ‘field’ Pannenberg means ‘the inter- 
penetrating network of energetic forces which are woven into 
relational patterns ’. 11 Note the word ‘energetic’, which seems 
to point clearly in the direction of physics. It is important to 
recognise that energy is not a kind of ‘spiritual’ concept. Ein- 
stein’s famous equation, E = me 2 , as much asserts the materi- 
ality of energy as it does the energetic character of matter. 
A physical field, like Maxwell’s electromagnetic field, carries 
energy and momentum, inertial properties which function in 
the same way for the field as they do for particles of mat- 
ter. Pannenberg does not seem to recognise that this is so. 
After a long historical discussion of the word ‘spirit’, noting 
among other things the Stoic notion of pneuma as subtle mat- 
ter, he feels that we have progressed beyond a kind of etio- 
lated materialism for ‘difficulties of this kind no longer bur- 
den the field concept of modern physics, at least if no ether 
is considered necessary for the expansion of waves within the 
field ’. 12 This notion of a field’s immateriality is clearly not cor- 
rect. The physicist cannot be other than profoundly uneasy 
when Pannenberg writes ‘I rather think that the modern con- 
ception of fields and energy went a long way to ‘spiritualise’ 
physics ’. 13 


11. Albright and Haugen, Beginning , 251. 

12. Pannenberg in Peters, Theology of Nature, 39-40. 

13. Albright and Haugen, Beginning, 429. 


162 



CONTEMPORARIES 


If there is a hint of a move in modern physics in the di- 
rection that Pannenberg desires, it does not arise from field 
theory but from the discoveries of chaos theory and com- 
plexity theory . 14 The discovery of the spontaneous generation 
of large-scale orderly structures in complex systems, both in 
space and in time, has led to a recognition that notions of 
energetic causality need supplementing by notions of a kind of 
pattern-forming causality, for which some of us have coined 
the phrase ‘active information ’. 15 If there is a hint of the emer- 
gence of the ‘spiritual’ in modern science, this is where it is 
to be found and not in field theory as such. The behaviour of 
these complex physical systems also manifests irreversibility 
(the distinction between past and future, defining a direction 
for the arrow of time). This is a property to which Pannenberg 
attaches great significance, because of his emphasis on the role 
of a genuinely unfolding history of creation. 

The same set of scientific discoveries also encourages the 
recognition of the need to think holistically in addition to 
thinking in constituent terms. Chaotic systems are so sensi- 
tive to circumstances that they can never be treated in isola- 
tion from their environment. Spontaneously generated order 
appears as a property of the whole. We have seen that even 
quantum theory is found to bear witness to the non-atomistic 
nature of physical reality by its discovery of the ‘EPR effect’. 
The holistic view of the significance of wholes over parts, to 
which Pannenberg rightly attaches great importance, derives, 


14. See, for example, J. Gleick, Chaos (Heinemann, 1988); S. Kauffman, The 
Origins of Order (Oxford University Press, 1993 ). 

15. A. R. Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (SCM Press, 1993) chs. 3 and 
9; J. C. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (SPCK, 1991), ch. 3; Belief in God in an Age 
of Science (Yale University Press, 1998), ch. 3. See also chapter 6 in this volume. 


163 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


as far as natural science is concerned, to a significant degree 
from our growing insight into the way in which complexity 
generates emergent novelty, and not from field theory. In fact, 
contrary to what Pannenberg appears to believe, a classical 
field is a local entity. It is indeed spread out over the whole 
of space, but its values can be varied independently at points 
which are spatially separated from each other. They are not 
tied together into an integrated whole. 

Where modern field theory does express a kind of inte- 
grated synthesis is in its quantised form. Quantum field theory 
resolves the paradox of wave/particle duality. All fields have 
wavelike properties because of their spatial extension, but the 
addition of quantum mechanics introduces also a countable 
discreteness. The energetic excitations of the field then come 
in packets (quanta), which are given a particle interpretation. 
In modern physical thinking, particles and fields belong to- 
gether as a single entity, the former being excitations in the 
latter. In a powerful concept pioneered by Richard Feynman, 
the interactions of fields are conveyed by the exchange of vir- 
tual particles corresponding to them. 

It is not the case that fields as such have any intrinsic re- 
lationship to contingency. We have seen that the difference 
classically between a collection of particles and a field is simply 
that the former has a finite number of degrees of freedom (dis- 
tinct ways in which their state of motion can change), and the 
latter has an infinite number of degrees of freedom. This re- 
sults in particles being described by ordinary differential equa- 
tions and fields by partial differential equations. Both sets of 
equations are equally deterministic; correctly set boundary 
conditions specify completely the subsequent temporal devel- 
opment of their solutions. Of course, quantum fields do dis- 


164 



CONTEMPORARIES 


play contingent behaviour, but that arises from their quantum 
mechanical, rather than their field theoretic, nature. 

(ii) Contingency. Pannenberg places great emphasis on the 
contingency of creation. This is understood in two distinct 
senses. One affirms the total dependence of the universe upon 
its Creator, who freely holds it in being, moment by mo- 
ment. The other relates to the reality and significance of his- 
tory, which is no mere unrolling of an already written scroll 
but the unfolding development of a world of true becoming. 
Both these concepts are fundamental to Christian theology 
and Pannenberg ’s strong defence of them is very welcome. 
He believes that they were threatened by the development of 
the scientific idea of inertia, adumbrated in the late middle 
ages, articulated by Galileo and Newton, and expressed in 
modern physics by the conservation laws (of energy, momen- 
tum, angular momentum, etc.), which play so important a role 
in the contemporary understanding of nature. Pannenberg 
defines inertia as ‘an innate potential of persistence for any 
physical entity, be it in a state of rest or in a state of motion, 
unless it is disturbed by some other force ’. 16 He believes the 
notion has exercised a pernicious influence on theology. In 
his view, it led to the idea of the self-sustaining character of 
matter and so it encouraged a line of thought leading to the 
redundancy of the Creator. While historically this may well 
have been the case, it is clear that there was never a theologi- 
cal necessity that this should be so. Conservation laws are as 
contingent as any other part of the laws of nature. Physically, 
they arise in a deep way as consequences of the symmetry prin- 
ciples with which nature is endowed. Theologically, conser- 


1 6. Albright and Hangen, Beginning , 41. 


165 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


vation laws, and the symmetries that give rise to them, are to 
be understood to continue only as long as the Creator sustains 
them in being. This aspect of contingency is radically meta- 
physical in character and so it can neither be asserted nor de- 
nied simply on the basis of any form of physical theory. 

The second sense of contingency, relating to the charac- 
ter of physical process, is also metaphysical in its nature, but 
in a way that is more open to influence from physics. It must 
be admitted that the openness of the future would be hard 
to defend in the rigidly deterministic universe that Laplace 
regarded as the inexorable consequence of taking Newtonian 
ideas seriously. We have seen that in that world, full knowledge 
of the present, together with unlimited calculating power, im- 
plied also total knowledge of a rigorously entailed past and 
future. Nothing really novel ever happened; history was a re- 
iterated tautology. However, the iron grip of Laplace’s cal- 
culating demon has been relaxed by the twentieth century 
discovery of widespread intrinsic unpredictabilities present in 
nature, both at the microscopic level of quantum events and 
also at the macroscopic level of the behaviour of exquisitely 
sensitive chaotic systems. We have noted already that the ques- 
tion of whether these epistemological deficiencies are to be in- 
terpreted as signs of an ontological openness is a metaphysical 
issue, not to be settled by the natural sciences alone. In the case 
of chaotic systems, we have seen that it is possible to develop an 
interpretation that leads to the existence of extra causal prin- 
ciples with the form of the ‘active information’, and that these 
might well be capable of accommodating the action of both 
human and divine agency . 17 Such a programme would then 


17. See Polkinghorne, Belief in God , ch. 3. 


166 



CONTEMPORARIES 


achieve Pannenberg’s desired defence of the openness of his- 
tory, as theology wishes to understand it, not by appeal to field 
theory but to the ideas of the top-down effects of active in- 
formation. There is much that is necessarily speculative here, 
but I believe that these ideas afford a better model than field 
for the presence and activity of the Spirit. The emphasis on 
pattern-making certainly seems consistent with Pannenberg’s 
idea of Spirit as a ‘presence of meaning ’. 18 

(iii) The future. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of 
Pannenberg’s thinking has been his emphasis on the role of 
the future, conceived not simply as the location of the fulfil- 
ment of divine purpose at the end of history, but as the locus 
of a retrospective drawing power, guiding history in the direc- 
tion that God wills for it: ‘it is from the future that the abid- 
ing essence of things discloses itself ’. 19 There is in Pannen- 
berg’s thinking a fundamental ‘assumption of the priority of 
the future over past and present ’. 20 

Oddly enough, there is a rather banal way in which sci- 
ence could accommodate this notion. It is well-known that 
the field equations of physics admit of two, mutually exclu- 
sive forms of solution. One is based on what are called re- 
tarded potentials and it describes a situation in which effects 
propagate from past to future; the other is based on advanced 
potentials and it describes a situation in which effects propa- 
gate from the future into the past. However, it is a physical 
fact (whose origin is not well understood) that our universe 
appears to be one whose processes are generated by retarded 
potentials only. In our world, the bell rings only after the but- 

18. Pannenberg, Anthropology, 520. 

19. Ibid., 525. 

20. Albright and Hangen, Beginning , 428. 


167 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


ton has been pressed. (It is amusing to note, however, that Fred 
Hoyle has made a highly speculative proposal that the Intelli- 
gence he believes brings about much of the order in our world 
operates from the future by influencing the outcomes of quan- 
tum events. 21 ) 

One cannot help feeling that Pannenberg’s idiosyncratic 
view of the divine power of the future is his way of express- 
ing the Christian conviction of the ultimate eschatological 
triumph of God. Two comments can be made. One is that 
it is perfectly possible to combine ordinary notions of cau- 
sality, provided they are open enough to accommodate a con- 
cept of God’s active providential agency, with the belief that 
the determinate divine purposes will be fulfilled, albeit along 
contingent paths. 22 The often-used parable, at least as old as 
William James, of the divine Grandmaster winning the game 
of cosmic chess, whatever moves are made by the creaturely 
opponent, while not wholly satisfactory, carries something of 
the flavour of this idea. 

A second comment relates to the nature of the escha- 
tological fulfilment that can be anticipated. It will surely be 
characterised both by continuity with the past (it is truly his- 
torical creatures whose destined redemption is achieved) and 
also by discontinuity (so that there is a new creation, released 
from the transience and suffering of the old creation into an 
everlasting world made sacramental by the divine presence 
within it). 23 We find Paul wrestling in i Corinthians 15 with the 
problem of what such continuity/discontinuity could mean. 


21. F. Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe (Michael Joseph, 1983), ch. 8. 

22. See D. Bartholomew, God of Chance (SCM Press, 1984), ch. 4. 

23. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief /The Faith of a Physicist 
(SPCK/Princeton University Press, 1994), ch. 9; cf. Beginning , 438. 


168 



CONTEMPORARIES 


The transformative dimension of this hope sets limits to the 
validity of any eschatological extrapolation from our under- 
standing of present process. Our best clue lies in the resur- 
rection of Christ, so vigorously defended by Pannenberg as 
being an enacted event within history, though with a reach be- 
yond history . 24 Here is located, in the midst of time, the semi- 
nal event from which the new creation will grow, as the re- 
deemed transformation of the old creation (just as the Lord’s 
risen body was the glorified form of his dead body— hence the 
empty tomb). 

It is time to return to less specific issues. In view of Pan- 
nenberg ’s very general, and to some degree questionable, en- 
gagement with broad topics related to physics, it is somewhat 
surprising to read his words that ‘the attempt to find some 
common ground with physics has occupied more of my time 
than engagement with any other discipline, except perhaps 
history ’. 25 One might have hoped that greater attention would 
have been given to the content of modern physical theory. 
No doubt the need for revision, due to the unanticipated dis- 
coveries made as scientific exploration advances, does mean 
that the conclusions of the natural sciences have the character 
of ‘provisional versions of objective reality ’, 26 but neverthe- 
less, in a well-winnowed physical regime, the understandings 
gained can be expected to have lasting stability. We are not 
going to change our minds about the atomic constitution of 
matter! 

On the comparatively rare occasions when Pannenberg 
does consider specific scientific ideas, there can be a some- 


24. W. Pannenberg, Jesus, God and Man (SCM Press, 1968). 

25. Albright and Haugen, Beginning , 435. 

26. Ibid., 405. 


169 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


what portentous character to what is said. The spontaneous 
emergence of large-scale order in dissipative systems, held far 
from equilibrium, is a striking phenomenon, but it seems a 
little grandiose to describe it as ‘ecstatic self-transcendence’, 
words also employed to describe an organism’s ecological re- 
lationships . 27 There are also occasional errors. It is misleading 
to say that the Weak Anthropic Principle specifies that ‘the 
emergence of life and intelligence in the universe cannot be 
considered an accidental feature ’. 28 What it does say is simply 
that the state of the universe as we observe it must be compat- 
ible with our presence as observers within it, a virtually tau- 
tologous statement amounting merely to the recognition that 
if neither the cosmic age nor the cosmic circumstances were 
such as to have permitted our emergence, we would not be in 
existence to do the observing. (We see a universe about fifteen 
billion years old because it takes that long to evolve men and 
women from the original ball of energy of the big bang.) 

Among the dangers in venturing into a discipline beyond 
one’s own is that of succumbing to gullibility. No doubt scien- 
tists who make forays into theology are by no means exempt 
from this peril. Nor is Pannenberg in his engagement with 
physical science. This is most evident in the enthusiastic wel- 
come he gave at first to the speculative ideas of Frank Tipler. 
Pannenberg is certainly not without his reservations , 29 but in 
general he takes Tipler much more seriously than, say, the 
scientist-theologians 30 are inclined to do. In Beginning with the 
End, Tipler presents an account of his views in relatively mea- 


27. Ibid., 104-107. 

28. Ibid., 437. 

29. Ibid., 437-441. 

30. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , 53. 


170 



CONTEMPORARIES 


sured terms 31 and he receives from some of his fellow con- 
tributors a quizzically respectful response. However, subse- 
quent to the 1988 symposium on which that volume is based, 
Tipler published a much fuller version of his thinking in his 
book The Physics of Immortality ? 2 This made clear the chilling 
reductionism of the proposal (human beings are regarded as 
information-processing finite state machines) and its fantas- 
tically speculative character, not only metaphysically but also 
physically (assumptions are made about the behaviour of mat- 
ter in regimes less than 10" N seconds away from the final sin- 
gularity, where N = 10 10 , whilst even those bold speculators, 
the quantum cosmologists discussing the very early universe, 
do not pretend to get much closer to a singularity than 10" 43 
seconds). 

Pannenberg tells us that ‘the most comprehensive issue 
arising from theological dialogue with the sciences is certainly 
that of cosmology’. 33 If that is the case, it would be best to 
rely on the well-founded prediction of eventual cosmic death, 
either through collapse or decay, than on Tipler’s fantastic 
imaginary scenario. The final futility of present physical pro- 
cess poses precisely the question that eschatology has to ad- 
dress: Does the universe make total sense or is it, as Steven 
Weinberg notoriously said, ultimately ‘pointless’? 34 The an- 
swer surely lies in the Christian concept of death and resur- 
rection, rather than in the the kind of extreme evolutionary 
optimism proposed by Tipler (and, one must say, in a differ- 
ent way by Teilhard de Chardin). Of course, Pannenberg— 


31. Albright and Hangen, Beginning , 156-194. 

32. F. J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality (Doubleday, 1994). 

33. Albright and Haugen, Beginning , 436. 

34. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (A. Deutsch, 1977), 149. 


171 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


the theologian of hope and of the resurrection— knows that 
this is so. Concerning the death of the universe, he says, ‘new 
life could well be remembered in God’s eternity so it could 
be resurrected at the end of history’ 35 , but he does not make 
enough of this fundamental insight. 

The themes of this section have been quite critical of de- 
tails of Pannenberg’s engagement with the natural sciences. 
It is to be hoped that the reader will perceive beneath these 
themes the cantus firmus of an admiration for a great theolo- 
gian who is not content to dwell in a theological ghetto but 
who ventures forth for dialogue with many branches of human 
enquiry, sustained by his conviction of the unity of knowl- 
edge, a conviction that is underwritten by the oneness of the 
Creator, understood as the all- determining reality. 

Finally, it is instructive to make a brief comparison of 
Pannenbergwith another great twentieth-century theologian, 
equally strongly convinced of the unity of knowledge, Bernard 
Lonergan. His thought is formed by the Thomist tradition’s 
belief that the search for understanding, if pursued through 
and through with an honest openness to discovery, will in 
the end prove to be the search for God, ‘the unrestricted act 
of understanding’. 36 Lonergan’s thinking is primarily philo- 
sophical and metaphysical, rather than biblical. He lauds the 
epistemological virtues of ‘alertness, intelligence, reasonable- 
ness and responsibility,’ 37 but he pays little attention to the 
specifics of the New Testament (Jesus Christ does not ap- 
pear in the index of Lonergan’s great book, Insight). Scien- 


35. Albright and Haugen, Beginning , 438 ; cf. Polkinghorne, Belief /Faith, ch.9. 

36. B. Lonergan, Insight (Longman, 1958), 684. 

37. B. Lonergan, Method in Theology (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973), 14. 


172 



CONTEMPORARIES 


tifically, he is principally concerned with the kinematic gen- 
eralities of space and time, rather than the specific dynamic 
content of physical theory. When he does discuss physics, 
Lonergan displays a degree of technical facility, deriving from 
his competence in mathematics. (One might even suspect a 
slight degree of showing- oft in the way he writes out equa- 
tions in Insight . ) There is the same recognition that we found 
in Pannenberg, that theology and the natural sciences have 
things to say to each other, together with a comparable re- 
serve about engaging with specifics. Concern with scientific 
detail is to be found to a much greater degree in the writings of 
the scientist-theologians 38 , but coupled in our case with much 
less theological sophistication. All these writers are making ex- 
ploratory trips into the border region between theology and 
the natural sciences, not surprisingly mapping most accurately 
the territory that is nearest to their home base. Much still re- 
mains to be discovered in that fertile region. 


8.2 thomas torrance’s engagement 

WITH THE NATURAL SCIENCES 

Thomas Torrance is a distinguished systematic theologian 
who writes from within the reformed tradition. He and Pan- 
nenberg are leaders among contemporary theologians who 
take the greatest interest in what the natural sciences have to 
say. It is instructive to see where they agree and where their 
approaches differ. 

Both share the conviction that knowledge is one and that 
this unity is underwritten by the Oneness of God. Torrance 


38. See Polkinghorne, Scientists. 


173 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


repudiates the idea of life in the theological ghetto when he 
writes about theology that ‘because it operates in the same 
world as natural science it cannot pursue its activity in a sealed- 
off enclave of its own ’. 39 This emphasis on the unified char- 
acter of human enquiry into reality carries with it the impli- 
cation that the quest is also incomplete if it does not include 
theological investigation within its scope. One reason for this 
is that theology is needed to address those metaquestions that 
arise when the search for rational understanding is carried 
through without limit. Torrance tells us that the sciences other 
than theology ‘are not ultimately self-explanatory, refraining 
from asking the question as to the ultimate rational ground 
that lies behind every field of knowledge ’. 40 For Torrance, that 
ultimate ground is, of course, God. 

Torrance is more explicitly detailed than Pannenberg in 
following through this indispensable necessity of taking the 
natural sciences seriously as part of the single quest for under- 
standing. He makes much more appeal to the content of of sci- 
ence, concentrating on the physical sciences and saying com- 
paratively little about the biological sciences and even less 
about the social sciences, which are such an important con- 
cern for Pannenberg. Torrance’s scientific heroes are Fara- 
day, Maxwell and Einstein, and it is from the development 
of classical field theory that he draws his greatest scientific 
inspiration. Once again we encounter the mistaken notion 
that fields are, somehow, in themselves a source of openness 
to the future. ‘Already deep in the nineteenth century, espe- 
cially with Faraday and Maxwell, there was a growing reali- 


39. T. F. Torrance, Space , Time and Incarnation (Oxford University Press, 
1969), viii. 

40. T. F. Torrance, God and Rationality (Oxford University Press, 1971), 95. 


174 



CONTEMPORARIES 


sation that to understand the nature of the universe a rather 
different concept of order was needed to replace that of a nec- 
essary and mechanical order ’. 41 Concerning Einstein’s work, 
Torrance says, ‘There now emerged the concept of a continu- 
ous field of space-time which interacts with the constituent 
matter/energy of the universe, integrating everything within 
it in accordance with its unitary yet variable objective rational 
order of non- causal connections ' 42 (my italics). Non-causality 
was not what Einstein introduced, or would have wanted to, 
because he believed that our trust in the reality of the physi- 
cal world required for its basis that the world should possess 
a determinate order— hence his opposition to modern quan- 
tum theory. Einstein’s insistence on a realist interpretation 
of physics (which unfortunately he mistakenly identified with 
a belief in the naive objectivity of the physical world) is un- 
doubtedly one of the reasons why he appeals so much to Tor- 
rance, a resolute realist in his understanding of theology. 

Torrance frequently quotes Einstein’s dictum that the 
universe is ‘finite but unbounded’, treating this as if it were 
a statement of the causal openness of cosmic process. How- 
ever, the unboundedness being referred to is purely geomet- 
rical, comparable to the fact that the surface area of a sphere 
is finite but there is no natural boundary constituting the 
frontier of that finitude. If we are to find true openness in 
the physical world, the places to look for it would seem to 
be the domains of quantum theory, chaos theory and com- 
plexity theory. Torrance sometimes refers to quantum me- 


41. A. R. Peacocke (ed.), The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century 
(Oriel Press, 1981), 91. 

42. T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford University Press, 
! 9 8i )» 77 - 7 8 - 


175 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


chanics, and to the work of Ilya Prigogine on the spontaneous 
generation of large-scale order in dissipative systems , 43 but he 
does not make much of these ideas which could, in fact, be of 
fundamental significance for what he wants to achieve . 44 No 
one could question the greatness of his three scientific heroes, 
but they have had successors whose insights should also be 
taken into account. 

Often Torrance seems to make metaphorical use of scien- 
tific categories in a way that seems insufficiently controlled by 
their actual meaning. It is difficult for a rather literal-minded 
physicist to know what is being asserted in a passage in which 
it is said that Jesus Christ 

forms a moving and creative centre for the confluence 
of world-lines from the pleroma of space-time. The 
movement of eternity into time in Jesus Christ has the 
effect of temporalizing space and spatializing time in 
an orderly succession of successive patterns of change 
and coherent structures within which God may reflect 
and fulfil His own creative and redemptive intention- 
ality . 45 

Yet Torrance has made at least one brilliant use of a meta- 
phorical resource drawn from science. This occurs in the com- 
parison he makes between, on the one hand, the relationship 
of natural theology to revealed theology and, on the other 
hand, the relationship of geometry to physics . 46 Before Ein- 


43. See I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order out of Chaos (Heinemann, 1984). 

44. See Polkinghorne, Belief in God , ch. 3. 

45. Torrance, Incarnation , 72. 

46. T. F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Scottish Academic Press, 
1985), ch. 2. 


176 



CONTEMPORARIES 


stein, physics and geometry were considered to be distinct, 
with geometry defining the static structure of the spatial ‘con- 
tainer’ within which the independent dynamical interactions 
of physics then took place. The general theory of relativity 
changed all that, for it presents us with a single account in 
which matter curves space and space curves the paths of mat- 
ter, so that geometry and physics are in intimate and inte- 
grated mutual relationship. In a very similar way, natural the- 
ology was traditionally presented as the prologue to revealed 
theology, the discussion of ‘Dr Deo Uno ’ setting the scene 
for the subsequent discussion of ‘Dr Deo Trim’, the latter 
conducted in the light of Christian revelation. Torrance is 
surely right to insist, on the contrary, on the need for an 
integrated theological discourse. In isolation from revealed 
theology, natural theology too easily subsides into a deistic 
natural philosophy, which in turn will tend to sink further 
into pure naturalism. In isolation from natural theology, re- 
vealed theology loses an important point of contact with gen- 
eral human experience and then it too easily subsides into be- 
coming an ecclesiastical language game. 

Torrance’s affirmation of an appropriate place for natu- 
ral theology makes an important contribution to the develop- 
ment of theological thinking in the Reformed tradition. Tor- 
rance is recognised as a leading exponent and developer of the 
thought of the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth. 
Notoriously, Barth took a highly critical attitude towards at- 
tempts at natural theology. Torrance has succeeded in showing 
how revelation mediated through creation can be integrated 
with revelation uttered by God’s Word in Jesus Christ. Much 
as Torrance admires Barth, he criticises him for a marked re- 
luctance to engage with the insights of science. 


177 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 

However, what Karl Barth did not seem to appreciate 
adequately, was the fact that since God makes himself 
known to us in the created universe where he has placed 
us and therefore in and through the spatio-temporal 
structures and intelligibilities of the universe which, 
under God, are more and more disclosed to our sci- 
entific enquiries, there are basic interconnections be- 
tween theological concepts and natural scientific con- 
cepts which have to be brought to light, if we are to 
do justice both to our knowledge of God and to our 
knowledge of the created order ’. 47 

Although Torrance’s detailed use of scientific ideas is not 
always immune from criticism by professional scientists, his 
efforts in this respect derive from no superficial desire to ap- 
pear ‘up to date’ in a scientific age. Instead his engagement 
with science arises from his deep conviction that the charac- 
ter of our times is indeed stamped by the success of the natu- 
ral sciences and that this provides a challenge to theology that 
the latter should welcome and can respond to in a positive and 
creative way. He tells us that ‘whether we like it or not the 
whole of the future will be dominated by empirical science 
and anything that fails to stand up to its rigorous discipline 
will fall away ’. 48 Hence the need for ‘Theological Science’, the 
title of one of Torrance’s most important books . 49 Torrance 
shares with Pannenberg the concept of theology as the science 
of God. The influence of Karl Barth on his thinking ensures 

47. T. F. Torrance, Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge 
(Christian Journals, 1984), x. 

48. Torrance, Rationality , 51. 

49. T. F. Torrance, Theological Science (Oxford University Press, 1969). 


178 



CONTEMPORARIES 


that this understanding is differentiated sharply in his mind 
from any notion of theology as the science of religion. The 
self- revealing reality of God, and not the culturally influenced 
religious structures of human communities, is the true subject 
of theological concern. While it is true that ‘the more scien- 
tifically we can pursue our theology, the more we shall be able 
to march forward as one, and the more relevant our message 
will be to a world which will always be dominated by empirical 
and theoretical science ’, 50 Torrance would agree with Pannen- 
berg in a stout defence of the autonomy of theological think- 
ing within its own proper domain. A strategy of assimilating 
science and theology to each other must be resisted for ‘we 
cannot bring in from natural science ‘evidence’ to help us out 
of some point of theological difficulty ’. 51 

As I have already indicated, contingency is as impor- 
tant a theme for Torrance as it is for Pannenberg. He af- 
firms the ontological dependence of creation on the sustain- 
ing will of the Creator for its continuing existence, together 
with the openness of history towards the future. A third aspect 
of the universe’s contingency is also important in Torrance’s 
thought: the freely chosen character of the order which the di- 
vine will has bestowed upon the creation. Einstein once said 
that he was interested in what degree of choice the Lord had 
in fixing the laws of nature and the resulting form of the uni- 
verse. Torrance believes that choice to have been wide, so that 
we as scientists have to look and see what God has actually 
selected. ‘The intelligibility of the universe provides science 
with its confidence, but the contingency of the universe pro- 


50. Torrance, Incarnation , ix. 

51. Torrance, Rationality , 79. 


179 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


vides science with its challenge ’. 52 With the gift to creation 
of its fruitful order came also the divine gift of ‘a contingent 
freedom of its own, grounded in the transcendent freedom 
of God and maintained through His free interaction with the 
universe ’. 53 What we have called the kenotic character of the 
act of creation is expressed by Torrance when he writes, ‘The 
creation of the universe as an autonomous reality distinct from 
God while dependent on Him also, involves the endowment 
of the universe with autonomous structures of its own ’. 54 

When discussing these themes, Torrance presents us with 
a complex and nuanced account of the processes of creation 
in which order and contingency are intertwined and where 
these processes are open to God’s interaction with their un- 
folding history. ‘It is in this astonishing combination of unpre- 
dictability and lawfulness, not only in the history of man but 
in the history of all created reality in its relation to the con- 
stancy and freedom of the grace of the Creator, that lies be- 
hind the Christian conception of the cosmos as an open-ended 
universe ’. 55 A scientist reading those words cannot help think- 
ing of how well they resonate with our growing understanding 
of the way in which complex systems spontaneously generate 
order ‘at the edge of chaos’, 56 that is to say, in a region where 
order and disorder, predictability and unpredictability, inter- 
twine, so that the system is neither so rigid that nothing new 
can ever happen, nor so loose that nothing coming into being 
can ever persist. 


52. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order . ; 58. 

53. Ibid., 4. 

54. Ibid., 37. 

55. Ibid., 69. 

56. See Kauffman, Origins of Order. 


180 



CONTEMPORARIES 


Three distinctive and particular themes characterise 
much of Torrance’s thinking that is relevant to theology’s in- 
terface with the natural sciences: 

(i) Epistemic conformity. An insistent concern of Tor- 
rance’s is that we should recognise that there is no universal 
epistemology, so that entities can only be known in a man- 
ner that conforms to the way that they actually are. ‘You know 
something only in accordance with its nature, and you develop 
your knowledge of it as you allow its nature to prescribe for 
you the mode of rationality appropriate to it ’. 57 As I have writ- 
ten elsewhere, there is an unavoidable (and benign) ‘episte- 
mic circle’: ‘how we know is controlled by the nature of the 
object and the nature of the object is revealed through our 
knowledge of it ’. 58 A reflective scientist instantly recognises 
the justness of this claim. We know the macroscopic world 
of classical physics in one way, but the microscopic world of 
quantum theory is known in a quite different way that re- 
spects its Heisenbergian uncertainty. There is to be no un- 
due tyranny of common-sense, no reduction of everything to 
an epistemological lowest common denominator. When we 
enter a new physical regime, we must be open to the pos- 
sible revision of our ways of thinking and knowing. Rightly 
rejecting a view that scientists are perpetual sceptics, Torrance 
says, ‘What [the scientist] does subject to doubt is his own 
assumptions about the object, and so he allows attachment 
to the object to help him detach himself from his own pre- 
suppositions ’. 59 


57. Torrance, Rationality , 52. 

58. Polkinghorne, Belief /Faith, 32. 

59. Torrance, Rationality , 9. 


181 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


The relevance of this to theology’s search for knowledge 
of God is obvious: 

We cannot begin by forming independently a theory of 
how God is knowable and then seek to test it out or in- 
deed actualise it and fill it with material content. How 
God can be known must be determined from first to 
last by the way in which He is actually known . 60 

Here is an extremely valuable contribution to our thinking 
which accords well with experience gained in science’s own 
quest for understanding. 

(ii) Relational space. We have already noted that relativity 
theory integrated geometry and physics, space and matter. 
Although the theory retained some absolutes (the speed of 
light, the space-time measure called proper time), it replaced 
the old container view of space, dominant from the Greeks to 
Newton, with a relational concept of space and time (judge- 
ments of simultaneity are relative to observers, moving bodies 
contract, moving clocks run slow). This emphasis on the rela- 
tional character of reality was reinforced by quantum theory 
(interrelationship of observer and observed; the togetherness- 
in-separation, EPR effect, of quantum entities) and by chaos 
theory (exquisitely sensitive systems can never be isolated 
from the effects of their environment). Modern physics has 
repudiated the disjoint picture of atoms and the void in favour 
of a much more correlated account of reality. 

Torrance attaches considerable theological significance 
to this relational point of view, which he believes is fully 
consonant with the thinking of the Nicene Fathers of the 


6o. Torrance, Theological Science , 9. 


182 



CONTEMPORARIES 


early Church . 61 When God was thought of as being outside 
the container of created space, the consequent separation be- 
tween Creator and creation was too sharp to allow an adequate 
concept of divine incarnation. Even greater difficulty ensued 
when Newton identified his absolute space with the sensorium 
of God, for that made divine participation within that space a 
nonsensical contradiction. Torrance believes that this is what 
drove Newton to Arianism . 62 Only a concept of the universe as 
relational and dynamic can afford, in his view, a picture of cre- 
ation consonant with a true divine incarnation within its his- 
tory, for that requires ‘a concept of space in terms of ontologi- 
cal and dynamic relationship between God and the physical 
universe ’. 63 Torrance also shrewdly suggests that a container 
view of space encouraged an unduly reified kind of sacramen- 
talism for, under its influence in the Western Church, ‘super- 
natural grace was widely thought of as contained in ecclesias- 
tical vessels and capable of being handed on in space and time 
by means of them ’. 64 

(iii ) Incarnation. Absolutely central to Torrance’s thought 
is the full affirmation, in Chalcedonian terms, of the reality of 
the Incarnation, the historic event of the Word made flesh in 
Jesus Christ. Such an affirmation is welcome , 65 though some 
writers of science and theology have expressed a preference 
for formulating Christology in inspirational or functional 
terms . 66 Torrance finds in the Incarnation the focal point of 
Creator-creation interaction, in both directions. 

61. Torrance, Incarnation , ch. i. 

62. Ibid., 39-40. 

63. Ibid., 18. 

64. Ibid., 25. 

65. See Polkinghorne, Belief /Faith, ch. 7. 

66. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , ch. 6. 


183 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 

The world then is made open to God through its inter- 
section by the axis of Creation- Incarnation. Its space- 
time structures are so organized in relation to God that 
we who are set within them may think in and through 
them to their transcendent ground in God Himself. 
Jesus Christ constitutes the actual centre in space and 
time where this may be done. But what of the same re- 
lationship the other way round, in the openness of God 
for the world He has made? Does the intersection of 
His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ 
mean anything for God? We have noted already that it 
means that space and time are affirmed as real for God 
in the actuality of His relationship with us, which binds 
us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can 
contract out of them. Does this not mean that God has 
so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly 
experiences have import for Him in such a way, for ex- 
ample, that we must think of Him as taking our hurt 
and pain into Himself ? 67 

Two very important qualifications of classical theism’s rather 
austere account of God are given in that quotation. One is the 
acknowledgement that, although God is, of course, eternal, 
there is also a real divine relationship to the created reality of 
time. Many writers in the field of science and theology have 
wished also to affirm this, but they have often done so by bor- 
rowing from process theology the concept of a polarity of the 
eternal and the temporal within the divine nature . 68 Torrance’s 

67. Torrance, Incarnation , 74. 

68. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , 41; K. Ward, Rational Theology and the Cre- 
ativity of God (Blackwell, 1982); and chapter 7 in this volume. 


184 



CONTEMPORARIES 


approach is differently grounded because of its direct appeal 
to the Incarnation, the appearance of the Eternal within time. 
It is certainly difficult to see how the religion of the Incarnate 
Christ could not take divine involvement with time with the 
utmost seriousness. 

The second qualification relates to classical theism’s ac- 
count of divine impassibility, which led Thomas Aquinas to 
say that though God acts on creation, creation does not act on 
God. Of course, there could be no notion of creatures being 
able magically to manipulate God, but so extreme an expres- 
sion of divine invulnerability is hard to reconcile with the in- 
sight that God is love. Torrance believes that the implication 
drawn from the Incarnation of a divine participation in cre- 
ation’s travail is further reinforced by the fact that our knowl- 
edge of the dynamical contingency of the world has freed us 
from the medieval trap of entertaining ‘notions of the impassi- 
bility and immutability of God which had as their counterpart 
a notion of the world which, given its initial momentum by the 
First Cause, constituted a system of necessary and causal rela- 
tions in which it was very difficult to find room for any genuine 
contingence ’. 69 

Among leading contemporary theologians, Thomas Tor- 
rance displays the greatest concern to integrate into theologi- 
cal thinking insights that can legitimately be derived from the 
natural sciences. Details of how this is done can sometimes be 
criticised by scientists themselves, but they should also display 
admiration and gratitude for the whole-hearted way in which 
the enterprise has been undertaken. 


69. Torrance, Rationality , 6. 


185 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


8.3 PAUL DAVIES’ ENGAGEMENT WITH THEOLOGY 

Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist who is also a very success- 
ful popular writer about science. His many books are char- 
acterised by clear expositions of quite detailed and deep sci- 
entific ideas and by a well- conveyed air of excitement about 
the advance of knowledge. Part of the secret of his success is 
that he has a journalistic capacity to identify and tell a good 
story. At times this leads him to transgress one of the rules 
for the scrupulous popular expositor: make absolutely clear 
which ideas are widely accepted in the scientific community 
and which are still the subject of conjecture and continuing 
debate. For example, in his book on quantum theory, Other 
Worlds , 70 there is insufficient acknowledgement of the highly 
contentious character of the many-worlds interpretation of 
quantum mechanics. 

In 1983, Davies’ writing took a new turn with the publica- 
tion of God and the New Physics, with its by now notorious claim 
that ‘it may seem bizarre, but in my opinion science offers a 
surer path to God than religion’. 71 Here was a kind of natu- 
ral theology being practised, not by pious scientists who were 
adherents of a faith tradition, but by a free-standing enquirer 
who sensed that there was more to be told about the story 
of the universe than had met the unaided scientific eye alone. 
This was followed in 1992 by The Mind of God, a ‘more con- 
sidered attempt,’ 72 whose title capitalised on the way in which 
Stephen Hawking had flirted with theistic language in A Brief 


jo. P. Davies, Other Worlds (Dent, 1980). 

71. P. Davies, God and the New Physics (Dent, 1983), ix. 

72. P. Davies, The Mind of God (Simon and Schuster, 1992), 14. 


186 



CONTEMPORARIES 


History of Time , 73 where God appears frequently in the text but 
does not figure in the index. By 1995, Davies had been awarded 
the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. 

These developments are striking because Davies does not 
at all entertain a modest conception of the role of scientific 
understanding. We are told that ‘fundamental physics is point- 
ing the way to a new appreciation of man and of his place in the 
universe’ 74 and that ‘a unified description of all creation could 
be within our [scientific] grasp’. 75 About a highly speculative 
idea concerning the very early universe, Davies claims that ‘the 
implications of the Hartle-Hawking universe for theology are 
profound,’ 76 despite the judgement of theologians that ques- 
tions of temporal origin are not at all central to the doctrine 
of creation, which focuses on the answer to the ontological 
question of why the world exists at all. 

When we examine the arguments that persuade Davies 
to look beyond science in the search for a deeper and more 
comprehensive understanding, we find that they are precisely 
those which have been the basis for the revived and revised 
natural theology also advocated by more conventionally reli- 
gious scientists. 77 The deep intelligibility and rational beauty 
of the physical world are encouragements to a belief that there 
is an Intelligence behind its pattern and structure. The fine- 
tuning of the laws of physics, which was indispensable for the 
possibility of the evolution of carbon-based life, encourages 


73. S. W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988). 

74. Davies, God and the New Physics , vii. 

75. Ibid., vii. 

76. Davies, Mind of God , 68. 

77. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation (SPCK, 1988), chs. 1 and 2; 
Scientists , ch. 4. 


187 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


the thought that there is a Purpose to be discerned at work in 
cosmic history. Two particular themes recur with emphasis in 
Davies’ thinking: 

(i) The Laws of Nature. Davies asks the question, Where 
do physical laws come from? He is not content to take them, 
in their orderly fruitfulness, as unexplained brute fact. Davies 
tells us, ‘Personally I feel more comfortable with a deeper level 
of explanation than the laws of physics. Whether the use of the 
term “God” for that deeper level is appropriate is, of course, a 
matter of debate ’. 78 He does not wish to follow David Hume’s 
advice to treat matter and its properties simply as given brute 
fact. When considering the alternatives of a necessary world 
or a necessary being as providing the basis to be assumed as 
the ground of subsequent explanation, Davies is able to say, 
‘In my own mind I have no doubts at all that the arguments 
for a necessary world are far shakier than the arguments for 
a necessary being, so my personal inclination is to opt for the 
latter’. Yet he immediately goes on to say that it is not ‘obvious 
to me that this postulated being who underpins the rationality 
of the world has much relationship to the personal God of reli- 
gion, still less to the God of the bible or the Koran ’. 79 This is 
a point to which we shall return. 

(ii) Consciousness. The second theme to which Davies at- 
taches great significance is the emergence of consciousness in 
the course of cosmic history. For many of us, the most remark- 
able event following the big bang, of which we have knowl- 
edge, has been the universe’s becoming aware of itself through 
humanity— the event that, among other consequences, has 


78. Davies, Mind of God, 189. 

79. Ibid., 191. 


188 



CONTEMPORARIES 


made science possible. Davies tells us that he has ‘come to 
the point of view that mind — i.e. conscious awareness of the 
world — is not a meaningless and accidental quirk of nature, 
but an absolutely fundamental fact of reality ’. 80 While biolo- 
gists, as part of their stubborn refusal to accept any concept 
of progress through evolution, often seem to regard the men- 
tal as just another survival trick (without being able to explain 
convincingly why awareness, as opposed to the capacity for in- 
formation processing, has this character), many physicists are 
not at all readily disposed to take this dismissive view. In The 
Mind of God, Davies devotes a lot of space to discussing the 
nature of mathematics. He does not commit himself to a defi- 
nite answer, but many mathematicians believe that their sub- 
ject is concerned with discovery and not mere construction, 
so that there is a noetic world of mathematical truths which 
we are privileged to explore and which, in Davies’ phrase, is 
‘out there ’. 81 

We have already noted that Paul Davies is distinguished 
from many other writers on these topics because of his com- 
plete detachment from any religious tradition. This produces 
a considerable degree of limitation in his engagement with 
theology which, though far from exhibiting the kind of na- 
ivety of which it is easy to convict a writer such as Stephen 
Hawking, is nevertheless kept within unsatisfactorily narrow 
bounds. In God and the New Physics, Davies tells us that he has 
‘made no attempt to discuss religious experience or questions 
of morality ’. 82 That, of course, is his choice but it makes it 


8 0. Ibid., 16; cf. P. Davies, The Fifth Miracle (Penguin Press, 1998). 

81. Ibid., 141; cf. Polkinghorne, Belief in God , ch. 6. 

82. Davies, God and the New Physics , viii. 


189 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


scarcely surprising that he does not discover a God ‘who bears 
much relation to the personal God of religion, still less the 
God of the bible or the Koran’. He has not been looking in 
the right place. 

Davies has a fideistic understanding of religion and he 
shows little recognition of the nature of theology as a ratio- 
nal enquiry based on a search for understanding derived from 
motivated belief . 83 Statements such as ‘the world’s major reli- 
gions, founded on received wisdom and dogma, are rooted in 
the past and do not cope easily with changing times ’, 84 and ‘the 
true believer must stand by his faith whatever the apparent 
evidence against it’ 85 present an obscurantist and irrational 
account of religious thinking which I repudiate. There is no 
recognition of theology as being, in Anselm’s famous phrase, 
‘faith seeking understanding’. 

In his writing, Davies occasionally presents the discus- 
sion of an argument in the form of a dialogue. On these occa- 
sions, the spokesperson for conventional religion is as naive 
and unconvincing as is Simplicio, the defender of the Ptole- 
maic system in Galileo’s famous Dialogue Concerning the Two 
Chief World Systems. When ‘Believer’ starts a discussion by 
saying, ‘in my opinion, miracles are the best proof that God 
exists ’, 86 he is setting oft on the wrong foot. Such arguments 
may have played a part in a pre- critical age (one thinks of Pas- 
cal in the Pensees ), but no theologian today would take so bald 
an approach to the issue. Of course, Christian theology can- 
not evade the question of miracle, because of the central sig- 


83. Cf. Polkinghorne, Scientists , ch. 2. 

84. Davies, God and the New Physics , 2. 

85. Ibid., 6. 

86. Ibid., 191. 


190 



CONTEMPORARIES 


nificance of its claim of Christ’s resurrection, but its account 
would be much more careful and nuanced . 87 Davies’ discus- 
sion is made further unsatisfactory by its concentrating on 
levitation and walking on water, with a complete neglect of the 
resurrection. For the theist, the critical question in relation 
to the miraculous is that of divine consistency (such events, if 
they are to be theologically credible, must be capable of being 
understood as signs of a deeper insight into God’s relation to 
creation, and not as mere tours de force). That is why a Chris- 
tian consideration of the issue must start with the resurrec- 
tion and not with less significant, and so more questionable, 
wonders. 

In so far as Davies makes reference to theologians, it 
is usually to people like Augustine or Aquinas whose writ- 
ings combine theology with philosophy, with the quotations 
chosen from the philosophical side of their concerns. In fact, 
both of these great thinkers would regret an unbalanced en- 
gagement with their thought, which they would conceive to be 
of a truth-seeking unity. It is a quaint feature of Davies’ writ- 
ing that when he refers to contemporary theologians, such a 
Thomas Torrance, he habitually calls them ‘philosophers’. 

Another feature, perhaps more irritating than quaint, is 
that Davies virtually never refers to people of similar scien- 
tific background to himself who are also Christian believers 
and theologically aware, such as the scientist-theologians Ian 
Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and myself . 88 We appear to be natu- 
ral conversation partners, but this particular engagement has 
been declined. Perhaps that is because Davies seems to be 


87. Cf. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence (SPCK, 1989), ch. 4. 

88. See Polkinghorne, Scientists , for a summary of our approaches. 


191 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


under the misapprehension that religion belongs to ‘a bye- 
gone age ’. 89 

Davies tells us that he belongs ‘to the group of scientists 
who do not subscribe to conventional religion but neverthe- 
less deny that the universe is a purposeless accident ’. 90 At the 
end of his first book, this led him to the notion of ‘a natural 
rather than a supernatural God ’, 91 a kind of super-intelligent 
demiurge who had contrived much of the order and fruitful- 
ness that science discerns since, in Davies’ opinion, ‘it is per- 
fectly possible for much, if not all, of what we encounter in 
the universe to be the product of intelligent manipulation of 
a purely natural kind ’. 92 All this would, of course, have to be 
attained within the framework of the laws of physics which, 
from this point of view, retain the mystery of their given char- 
acter. Davies acknowledged that ‘physics can, perhaps, explain 
the content, origin and organization of the physical universe, 
but not the laws (or superlaw) of physics itself ’. 93 A substantial 
unexplained mystery remained. 

This early account neatly illustrated one of the classical 
criticisms of unaided natural theology: that the finite evidence 
to which it appeals can never establish the existence of an infi- 
nite Being. The best that could be done in that respect would 
be to follow those who, like Richard Swinburne , 94 argue that 
an infinite God is a simpler concept than a finite demiurge. 

In his second, ‘more considered’, volume, the discussion 
is more refined. Davies looks at the neoplatonic ideas of John 

89. Davies, Fifth Miracle, 203. 

90. Davies, Mind of God , 16. 

91. Davies, God and the New Physics , 209. 

92. Ibid., 208. 

93. Ibid., 216. 

94. R. Swinburne, Is There a God ? (Oxford University Press, 1996), ch. 3. 


192 



CONTEMPORARIES 


Leslie , 95 who suggests that ‘ethical requirement’ could bring 
the universe into being. Davies comments, 

My own inclination is to suppose that qualities such as 
ingenuity, economy, beauty and so on have a genuine 
transcendent reality— they are not merely the products 
of human experience— and that these qualities are re- 
flected in the structure of the natural world. Whether 
such qualities can themselves bring the universe into 
existence I don’t know . 96 

Such caution is wise. I have suggested that Leslie’s view is an 
attempt to turn the axiological argument for the existence of 
God into a free-standing principle of ontology, a burden that 
it cannot sustain . 97 

In a rare moment of engagement with a specific kind of 
theology, Davies expresses himself as being ‘closely in tune 
with process thought’, 98 though this seems more to be in re- 
lation to the general idea of a divine guidance of cosmic pro- 
cess within the grain of physical law than an endorsement of 
A. N. Whitehead’s event- dominated metaphysics (whose re- 
lationship to quantum physics is much more problematic than 
Davies seems to recognise "). The Mind of God ends with a 
statement of Davies’ credo: 

I cannot believe that our existence in this universe is 
a mere quirk of fate, an incidental blip in the great 
cosmic drama. Our involvement is too intimate. The 
physical species Homo may count for nothing, but the 

95. J. Leslie, Value and Existence (Blackwell, 1979). 

96. Davies, Mind of God , 14. 

97. Polkinghorne, Belief /Faith , 58. 

98. Davies, Mind of God, 192. 

99. Polkinghorne, Belief in God, 55-56. 


193 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


existence of mind in some organism on some planet 
in the universe is surely a fact of fundamental signifi- 
cance. Through conscious beings the universe has gen- 
erated self-awareness. This can be no trivial detail, no 
minor byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We 
are truly meant to be here. 100 

Paul Davies’ significance for theology is primarily as an 
exemplar. In this way he illustrates two facts about natural the- 
ology. The first is that it is a feasible rational enterprise in the 
modern world, conducted in the modest mode of an insightful 
enquiry into limit questions that arise from science but go be- 
yond the latter’s circumscribed field of investigation. The the- 
istic answers suggested are not logically coercive but they are 
plausible and intellectually satisfying, even to someone who 
brings to them no prior inclination to espouse such belief. To 
see that this is so is an encouragement to those of us who, from 
within a religious tradition, make use of similar insights. It is 
clear that we are not just allowing the wish to be father to the 
thought. 

The second fact about natural theology illustrated in 
Davies’ writings is its insubstantiality when unallied with in- 
sights drawn from wider experience, including the encounter 
with the sacred, preserved and propagated in the world faith 
traditions. Interesting, and indeed moving, as are some of 
Davies’ thoughts on the significance of the universe and its 
history, there is a theological thinness about them which sub- 
stantiates Torrance’s insistence that natural and revealed the- 
ology belong together and that neither can satisfactorily be 
pursued in isolation. 

ioo. Davies, Mind of God, 232. 


194 



CHAPTER NINE 


Science and Theology in England 


~r A r~ his brief historical survey restricts it- 
-- A I self to England. An account of the 

-! ■ -- same subject in relation to Scotland 

~ I I I ~ would be somewhat different, and one 

I j 'in relation to North America much 
-- + ■ / -- more so. Some of the differences stem 

" ^ I I I I from contrasting national characters. 
The Scots have always manifested a more overtly intellectually 
serious attitude towards life than the English. (The traditional 
Scottish respect for the Dominie, the local schoolmaster, was 
not quite paralleled in England.) Systematic theology has 
been an enduring Scottish academic interest. Academy in 
North America has been heir to a great variety of influences, 
with the Continental European at least as significant as the 
British. Other differences stem from the particular role that 
the Church of England has played in English national life. 
Anglicanism has always sought to found its theological think- 
ing on the triple basis of scripture, tradition and reason. It at- 
taches importance to an easy dialogue with secular learning, 


195 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


an emphasis that could not fail to be consolidated by the mo- 
nopoly held by the Church of England over the two ancient 
universities of Oxford and Cambridge until late in the nine- 
teenth century. The strengths of English theological scholar- 
ship have tended to lie in biblical and patristic studies rather 
than in systematic theology. Its feeder discipline has tradition- 
ally been classics and not philosophy. 

A byproduct of this emphasis on sound learning has been 
the long English history of interaction between theology and 
science. The interchange has never been a major activity but 
it has been a persistent one. It was adumbrated in the Middle 
Ages with Robert Grosseteste’s concern with light, both as a 
physical phenomenon and as a spiritual symbol. The meta- 
physical scheme of his treatise De Luce considers light as the 
subtle prime matter of creation from which all else developed 
according to immanent principles. 

A common theme in seventeenth- century English think- 
ing was that of the ‘two books’ that God had written: the book 
of nature and the book of scripture. We find this idea, relating 
the insights of a nascent science to the traditional insights of 
theology, expressed in that century in the writings of Francis 
Bacon, Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Boyle. Natural the- 
ology always had a strong appeal to the English, particularly 
in the form of ‘physico-theology’, appealing to the aptness of 
living beings and the regularity of the world in order to estab- 
lish the credibility of belief in a divine Designer. From John 
Ray’s Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691) 
through William Paley’s celebrated Natural Theology (1802) 
and on to the Bridgewater Treatises (1833-36) concerned with 
‘The Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in 
the Creation’, the English were uninhibited in their commit- 


196 



SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN ENGLAND 

ment to this form of the Argument from Design. Only the 
alternative insights of Darwin (1859) could bring the pursuit 
of this particular kind of natural theology to a sudden halt. 

Later in the nineteenth century, F. J. A. Hort not only 
edited the Greek text of the New Testament with B. F. West- 
cott but he also examined in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 
Cambridge. Flort was a man who published much less than 
he thought or knew, but in his Flulsean Lectures, The Way, 
the Truth and the Life, he wrote that ‘if it was necessary that 
man should come to know God above, it was also necessary 
that he should come to know the world below’ and he went 
on to welcome the fact that, through science, there is now 
‘added a knowledge of the constituent elements and forces 
of the world, and of its history in the past’. 1 The Anglicans 
Charles Kingsley, Aubrey Moore and Frederick Temple all 
played important parts in welcoming the insights of Charles 
Darwin, perceiving that an evolutionary world can be under- 
stood theologically as a creation allowed by its Creator ‘to 
make itself’. Moore wrote in Lux Mundi (1889) that ‘science 
has pushed the deist’s God further and further away, and at 
the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out 
all together, Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a 
foe, did the work of a friend’. 2 In other words, an occasion- 
ally interventionist God had been removed from the agenda, 
to the greater health of theology. Either God was at work, 
everywhere and at all times, through the unfolding processes 
of creation, or God was absent from the world altogether. 
Twentieth- century writers such as Arthur Peacocke, and in 


1. F. J. A. Hort, The Way , the Truth and the Life (Macmillan, 1893), 80-81. 

2. Quoted by A. R. Peacocke in J. Durant (ed.), Darwinism and Divinity 
(Oxford University Press, 1985), in. 


197 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


the United States Ian Barbour, would later continue this theme 
and develop it under the rubric of divine creatio continua? Cre- 
ation is no longer to be thought of as a once for all decree, but 
as an unfolding process. 

One may also note that in the nineteenth century, which 
is so often seen as a time of conflict between science and reli- 
gion, the great British physicists of the day, Faraday, Max- 
well, Kelvin and Stokes, were all men of deep religious faith. 
James Clerk Maxwell’s deep insight and formidable mathe- 
matical powers enabled him to discover the unified theory 
of electricity and magnetism, an achievement comparable to 
Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation. Maxwell was the 
first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge and he 
caused to have inscribed in Latin over the archway leading to 
the Cavendish Laboratory the verse from Psalm in, ‘Great 
are the works of the Lord, studied by all who have pleasure 
in them’. 

This interaction between science and theology has con- 
tinued in the twentieth century. Between the wars, the distin- 
guished astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, and his scien- 
tific sparring partner Sir James Jeans, both expressed in their 
highly successful popular writings a feeling that developments 
in our understanding of the history of the universe and the 
nature of physical process were congenial to taking seriously a 
spiritual dimension to reality. Eddington was responsible for 
two influential images conveying the limited character of sci- 
ence. One was the figure of ‘the two tables’: the solid wooden 
object of common experience and the ghostly entity of scien- 


3. I. G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (SCM Press, 1966), ch. 12; 
A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (Oxford University Press, 1979), 
ch. 2. 


198 



SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN ENGLAND 

tific theory, mostly empty space but containing some quantum 
probability wave-patterns as well. He commented ironically, 
‘I need not tell you that modern physics has by delicate test 
and remorseless logic assured me that my second table is the 
only one that is really there— wherever “there” may be ’. 4 A 
point is being made, but in a slightly cheap and polemical way. 
The other image was of the fisherman with a two-inch mesh 
to his net, who concludes that all fish are at least two inches 
long . 5 Here a more serious point is being made, for impersonal 
science does indeed trawl experience with a coarse-grained 
net. Eddington was a Quaker and his religious beliefs and ex- 
periences, which were clearly of great importance to him, are 
expressed in doctrinally unfocussed language. The word he 
liked to use was ‘mysticism’, meaning not the intense unitive 
experience of a St John of the Cross, but a more everyday 
consciousness of the sacred. Jeans, much more than Edding- 
ton, was deeply impressed by the role of beautiful mathemat- 
ics as the key to unlock the secrets of the physical world. In 
his best-selling book The Mysterious Universe he wrote, ‘the 
great Architect of the Universe now begins to appear as a 
pure mathematician ’. 6 Both these distinguished scientists en- 
couraged the recognition of the possibility of friendship be- 
tween science and religion, but their occasional thoughts on 
the matter did not have sufficient theological depth to contrib- 
ute much to the intellectual assessment of the encounter. 

A philosophical theologian who took science very seri- 

4. A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge University 
Press, 1928), xiv. 

5. A. S. Eddington, The Philosophy of Physical Science (Cambridge University 
Press, 1949), 16. 

6. J. Jeans, The Mysterious Universe (Cambridge University Press, 1930), 134. 


199 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


ously was the now almost-forgotten F. R. Tennant. He main- 
tained a version of the design argument but framed it in terms 
very different from those of Paley. Tennant looked to the in- 
telligibility and general character of the physical world as pro- 
viding grounds for belief in cosmic design. ‘The forcibleness 
of Nature’s suggestion that she is the outcome of intelligent 
design lies not in particular cases of adaptedness in the world, 
nor even in the multiplicity of these . . . [but] consists rather in 
the conspiration of innumerable causes to produce, either by 
united or reciprocal action, and to maintain, a general order of 
nature’. These words, written in the 1930s, prefigure lines of 
thought that would be vigorously pursued by others more than 
forty years later. In describing this ‘wider teleology’, 7 Ten- 
nant is credited with coining the adjective ‘anthropic’, though 
doubtless it was independently recoined by the English astro- 
physicist Brandon Carter 8 when he made his seminal com- 
ments, inaugurating the modern-style discussion of Anthropic 
Principle coincidences. It was only with this latter, more fo- 
cussed appeal to scientific insights that a revived and revised 
natural theology really got under weigh, an activity in which 
English contributors have played a significant role. 

Charles Raven was Regius Professor of Divinity at Cam- 
bridge in the late 1940s and he was keenly interested in natu- 
ral history. He maintained the English tradition of a positive 
theological evaluation of evolution, writing on this theme in 
terms more measured and less mystical than those employed 
by Teilhard de Chardin, thereby reflecting the modest, un- 

7. F. R. Tennant, Philosophical Theology , vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 
i 93 °), 79. 

8. B. Carter inM. S. Longair (ed.), Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with 
Observation (Reidel, 1974), 29. 


200 



SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN ENGLAND 

rhetorical tone that has tended to characterise English dis- 
course. The first volume of his Gifford Lectures 9 is devoted to 
a survey of theologically informed attitudes to nature from the 
times of the biblical writers onwards. Raven was particularly at 
home with the gently reasonable religion of the seventeenth- 
century Cambridge platonists (Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph 
Cudworth, Henry More and their followers). He deplored the 
increasingly mechanised picture of nature that had stemmed 
from the ideas of Descartes and Newton and he greeted with 
relief the twentieth- century demise of the merely mechanical, 
which Raven attributed to Einstein and (with much greater 
justice) to the discoverers of quantum theory. 

The tradition of Christian thinking that takes its inspi- 
ration from St Thomas Aquinas has always been concerned 
to set theology within a wide and generous intellectual con- 
text. Eric Mascall, who had studied mathematics as a young 
man, was an English Thomist whose Bampton Lectures of 
1956, 10 though inevitably now dated, represent one of the first 
attempts to treat the interaction of science and theology in a 
modern manner that seeks to do professional justice to both 
disciplines. One may note that Mascall took a decidedly re- 
served view of Tennant’s wider teleology. 

More recently, Arthur Peacocke and myself, both of us 
coming to theology after long professional research careers 
in science, have sought to further the interaction between the 
two disciplines. 11 We belong to a growing clan of what might 

9. C. E. Raven, Science and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 1953). 

10. E. L. Mascall, Christian Theology and Natural Science (Longmans, 1956). 

11. For a survey and comparison of the work of Peacocke and myself, together 
with our American colleague Ian Barbour, see J. C. Polkinghorne, Scientists as Theo- 
logians (SPCK, 1996). 


201 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


be called scientist-theologians. Today, the scene is also be- 
coming more professionalised, with Fraser Watts, a psycholo- 
gist, holding at Cambridge the first endowed post in Britain 
devoted to Theology and the Natural Sciences. In England 
and elsewhere, talented young people are beginning to enter 
the subject through participation in Ph.D. programmes. 

In an interdisciplinary encounter of this kind it is natural 
to consider whether a ground for meeting, and an arbiter for 
settling differences, might not be found in philosophy. Here a 
striking difference becomes apparent between the English and 
Continental styles of thought. One feels that every German 
theologian writes with Kant looking over one shoulder and 
Hegel looking over the other. For good or ill, the English tend 
to enjoy a more relaxed relationship with philosophy. We do 
not feel that John Locke is looking over our shoulder, though 
we cannot be altogether oblivious of the quizzical scrutiny of 
that stout Scottish sceptic David Hume. In so far as the British 
empirical tradition in philosophy affects us, it is principally in 
the form of a general encouragement to seek to ground under- 
standing in experience. 

This tendency is particularly prevalent in the scientific 
community, among whom there is considerable reserve about 
the way in which the second-order commentaries of the phi- 
losophers of science relate to first-order experiences of actu- 
ally doing science. The stance taken by reflective scientists is 
that of a critical realism. We have seen that, in essence, the de- 


fence of scientific realism is an empirical defence: this is the 
way things have been found to be. Critical realism is not a logi- 
cal claim about what must be true in all possible worlds, but it 
is a specific claim about what has been found to be the case in 
our actual world. It seems that we live in a universe so consti- 


202 



SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN ENGLAND 


tuted, and are ourselves persons so constituted, that science is 
possible. 

Scientist-theologians like Peacocke and myself— and in 
North America, Barbour— have sought to defend an analo- 
gous critical realist approach to theology . 12 Of course, there 
are big differences between theology’s concern with the One 
who transcends us and who can properly be encountered only 
with awe and obedience, and science’s concern with a physi- 
cal world that we transcend and can put to the experimental 
test. Nevertheless we feel that we discern a degree of cousinly 
relationship between the two disciplines in that both are com- 
mitted to a search for truth (a truth never wholly attained but 
to some degree approximated to). This critical realist quest for 
the best explanation provides, in our view, a common ground 
on which the dialogue between science and theology can take 
place. 

Such thinking encourages an approach to theology that I 
described in my Gilford Lectures as ‘bottom-up thinking ’. 13 
It seeks to proceed from the basement of evidence and experi- 
ence to the higher level of theological understanding, whilst 
acknowledging that, no more in theology than in science, can 
we escape the inevitable intertwining of event and interpreta- 
tion. In both disciplines we have to believe in order to under- 
stand, as well as understanding in order that we may believe. 

Bottom-up theology roots its Christian account in the 
economic Trinity (revelatory acts of the Triune God) and it 
does not aspire to speak of the essential Trinity (the divine 
nature in itself) other than through the Church’s encounter 


12. Ibid. 

13. J. C. Polkinghorne, Science and Christian Belief /The Faith of a Physicist 
(SPCK/Princeton University Press, 1994). 


203 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


with the economic Trinity. ‘Rahner’s Rule’— that the eco- 
nomic Trinity is the essential Trinity— can be understood as a 
statement of critical theological realism in this sense, a belief 
that such an approach from below will be trustworthy. 

English people and scientists are both prone to be sus- 
picious of grand general principles that are not experientially 
earthed, and so an English scientist is doubly inclined to this 
way of thinking. I do not claim that it is the only way to ap- 
proach theology but I believe that it affords a distinctive theo- 
logical perspective, comparable to the perspectives, say, of lib- 
eration theology or feminist theology. Every specific point of 
view contains potentialities both for benefit derived from its 
particular insight and for distortion deriving from the limi- 
tation of its particular perspective. Certainly, the bottom- 
up approach will be an appropriate apologetic strategy for 
Christian witness to the scientific community, but externally 
oriented apologetics can only have real effectiveness if they 
also correspond internally to faith’s quest for understanding, 
pursued with scrupulosity. 

We have seen that the English have always had an incli- 
nation towards natural theology and today we see a revival of 
natural theology in the English-speaking world. It is taking 
place more at the hands of the scientists (including some, like 
Paul Davies , 14 who stand outside any conventional religious 
tradition) than at the hands of the theologians proper. This 
new natural theology is also revised. It is modest in its am- 
bition, claiming only intellectually satisfying insight rather 
than logical proof. In fact, in the twentieth century after Kurt 


14. P. C. W. Davies, God and the New Physics (Dent, 1983); The Mind of God 
(Simon and Schuster, 1992). 


204 



SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN ENGLAND 

Godel, we have come to see that proof is a limited, and in 
some ways unsatisfactory, category. The new natural theology 
is no rival to science but it seeks to complement it. It does 
not purport to answer questions that rightly lie in science’s 
domain (such as how life originated on Earth) but it looks to 
the ground of science’s explanation and goes on to ask whether 
the laws of nature are sufficiently self-contained to afford a 
fundamental basis for understanding the world, or whether 
they do not point beyond themselves to a deeper Ground of 
explanation. This discussion revolves around two great meta- 
questions, arising from scientific experience but going be- 
yond science’s own self-limited power to answer: ‘Why is sci- 
ence possible?’ and ‘Why is the universe so (anthropically) 
special?’. 15 

Natural theology and creation are commonplace issues 
for discussion between science and theology. Recently, how- 
ever, there has been an increasing realisation that their mutual 
dialogue must also move on to embrace topics of yet more cen- 
tral significance for each discipline. During the 1990s in the 
English-speaking world, there has been considerable engage- 
ment with questions relating to divine action and how it may 
be conceived of in the light of science’s account of the orderly 
process of the physical world. In this discussion, science must 
be prepared to reconsider its account of causality and theology 
its account of providence. 

One might hope that a bridge between the two might 
be afforded by philosophy’s offering a metaphysics which is 
humble enough to pay respect to the conditions that both sci- 

15. See J. C. Polkinghorne, Reason and Reality (SPCK, 1991), ch. 6; Belief in 
God in an Age of Science (Yale University Press, 1998), ch. 1. 


205 



SIGNIFICANT THINKERS 


ence and theology would wish to impose upon it, but also bold 
enough to forge a chain of connection. The links in that chain 
will not be the tight links of logical entailment, but they will 
be alogical links of consonant relationship. Similar conditions 
of consonance will originate from the theological end. 

The pragmatically minded English have made their own 
characteristic contributions to a dialogue between science and 
theology that has been continuing for centuries. We have no 
desire, however, to be Little Englanders and we recognise that 
this conversation is now world-wide and that it is increasingly 
drawing in all the great world faith traditions. Exciting times 
lie ahead for the international exploration of the relationship 
between the truths of science and the truth of God. 


206 



Index 


Albright, C. R., 157 
Anthropic Principle, xii, 21-22, 
68-70, 74, 85-89, 160, 170, 200 
Aquinas, T., 18, 137-38, 185 

Bacon, F., 196 

Barbour, I. G., 79, 84, 90, 116, 155, 
191, 198, 203 
Barth, K., 62, 177-78 
Beauty, 13-14 
Behe, M., 75-77 
Block universe, 136-37 
Bohm, D., 144 
Bohr, N„ 8 

Bottom-up thinking, xv, 29, 43, 61, 
203-4 

Boyle, R., 196 
Browne, T., 196 

Carter, B., 200 

Chaos theory, xiv, 96, 99-101, 113, 
121-22, 147-49, 1 5 2 ’ 

Christology, 41-44, 126, 183-84 
Clayton, P., xiii, 91-93 
Collingwood, R. G., xiv, 105-7 
Complementarity, 95-96 
Complexity theory, 96-97, 121-23, 

163 . 

Consciousness, 97, 188-89 
Contextualism, 148 
Contingency, 165-67, 179-80 
Creation, 67-68, 165-66, 198 
Creeds, 38, 40-41 
Critical realism, xii, 33-35, 78-84, 
113, 202-3 

Darwin, C., 67, 76, 197 
Davies, P. C. W., xv, 156, 186-93, 
204 


Dawkins, R., 16-17, 161 
de Chardin, T., 152, 171 
de Duve, C., 72 
Denton, M., 69, 73-75 
Design, xii, 66-77 
Dirac, P. A. M., 7-8, 83 
Divine action, xiv-xv, 105, 107, 109- 
11, 114-17, 119-20, 123-28, 131, 
136-38, 149-50, 205 
Dual aspect monism, xiv, 95-99 

Eddington, A. S., 198-99 
Einstein, A., 9, 31, 46, 55, 80-81, 

D 2 > m-75 

Eschatology, 90-91, 142-43, 168- 
69, 171-72 

Evolution, 23, 67, 71-77, 88, 110-12 

Farrer, A., 116, 137 
Feynman, R. R, 164 
Field, 8, 144-45, 161-62, 164-65 
Francis, St 48 

Galileo, 10, 117-18 
General relativity, 9, 80-82, 139, 
D5-7 6 

Godel, K., 205 

Grand Unified Theory, 9-10 

Grosseteste, R., 196 

Hartshorne, C., 108 
Hawking, S. W., 186-87 
Heisenberg, W., 9, 55, 83 
Henderson, L. J., 69 
Hort, F. J. A., 197 

Information, active, 96-97, 123-25, 
148 

Inge, W. R., 114 
Irreducible complexity, 75 


207 



Index 


Jantzen, G., 107 
Jeans, J., 198-99 

Kant, I., 67, 113 
Kauffman, S., 72, 149 
Kelvin, Lord, 118-19 
Kenosis, xiv, 92-94, in, 125-27 
Kingsley, C., 23, in, 197 
Knowledge, xii, 3-5, 26, 181-82 
Kuhn, T., 115 

Leibniz, G., 109 
Leslie, J., 85, 193 
Lonergan, B., 172-73 

Mascall, E., 201 

Mathematics, xii-xiv, 41, 83-84, 98, 
189 

Maxwell, J. C., 198 
McMullin, E., 34-35 
McTaeeart, T., its 
Metaphor, 84 
Mill, J. S„ 35 

Miracle, 59-60, 127-28, 190-91 
Model, 84 

Moltmann, J., 45, 93-94, in 
Monod, J., 160 
Moore, A., 197 

Nagel, T., 13 

Natural theology, 21-22, 61, 67-68, 
159-60, 176-78, 187-88, 192, 194, 
196, 204-5 

Newton, I., 92, 109, 118 

Paley, W., 67, 196 
Panentheism, xii-xiv, 89-95, io ^ 
Pannenberg, W., xv, 155-73 
Pascal, B., 12 

Peacocke, A. R., 79, 84, 90, 108, 

116, 123-25, 155, 191, 197, 201, 203 
Personhood, n-13, 16-17, 20, 28, 34, 
36 

Philosophy of science, 30-35 
Polanyi, M., 33-34, 55 
Pollard, W., 120 
Popper, K., 35 
Prigogine, I., 176 
Process theology, 151-52, 193 


Quantum theory, 6-9, 80, 82-83, 
85-88, 95-96, 100, 109, 112-13, 
120-21, 135-36, 139-41, H3-44. 
163-64, 176 

Ramsey, I., 40 
Raven, C. E., 200-1 
Ray, J., 67, 196 
Relationality, 46-47, 182-83 
Religious experience, 17-19, 54-57, 
60-63, 

Resurrection, 43-44 
Revelation, xii-xiii, 28-29, 36—37, 
52-65 

Schrodinger, E.,55, 83 
Science and theology, xi-xii, xv, 
119-20, 157, 195-206 
Scripture, xii-xiii, 37-38, 53, 56-58, 
60, 63-65, 159 
Smolin, L., 88 
Stannard, R., 132 
Symbol, 41 

Temple, F., 23, 197 
Tennant, F. R., 200-1 
Theodicy, 22-23, 45 , 60, 62-63, in 
Theology: nature of, 19-26, 27- 
29, 89-90, 119, 157, 174, 178-79, 
194, 203; sources for, 36-51, 131, 
161, 189-90; and time, 99, 114-17, 
141-43, 145-46, 150-51, 184-85. 
See also Revelation 
Time, xv, 131-38, 138-41, 143, 145- 
47, 150, 167-68 
Tipler, F. J., 142, 170-71 
Torrance, T., xv, 155, 173-85, 191 

Understanding, 5-7, 22, 25-26 

Vanstone, W. H., 112 

Watts, F. N., 95, 202 
Weinberg, S., 25 
Whitehead, A. N., n, 151, 193 
Wiles, M. F., 146 
World faiths, 49-50, 65 

Zizioulas, J., 47 


208